Departures Review: Better Late That Never
Originally released in 2008, it’s taken a whole year for Departures to arrive on British shores. It’s a real shame because it’s a fantastic drama (it won Best Foreign Language Film at last year’s Oscars), both beautifully constructed and extremely moving but also lightly comedic and well paced.
Daigo (Masahiro Motoki) is a professional cellist struggling to earn a living playing music. When the orchestra isdissolved, he decides that he should move back to his old home town with his wife Mika (Ryoko Hirosue) to save some money and restart his career.
Scanning the classified ads, he finds one labelled “Departures”. Mistakenly thinking this is an advert for a travel company, Daigo answers the ad, only to find out that it’s actually an advert for an “NK”, a “Nokanshi” – someone who performs a ceremonial laying out of the dead before their passage into the next life.
Daigo has never even seen a dead body so initially he’s reluctant to take on the job. But when he sees the dedication that his employer (Tsutomu Yamazaki) has, he begins to warm to his gruesome task and resolves to be as meticulous as he can. Unable to tell his wife for fear of what she might say, he keeps working, gradually becoming more absorbed by the intricacies of the job and realising that it’s more than it initially seems – it fulfils a much needed community element as it lets grieving family members come to terms with their losses.
Eventually his wife discovers what he’s been doing and is horrified, demanding that he quit. But by this time Daigo is convinced that this is where he wants to be. This leads him to confront some unresolved conflicts from his childhood and face up to the responsibilities of the future.
It’s a fascinating insight into Japanese culture; one which many westerners won’t even realise even exists and a frank and touching but never maudlin look at another culture’s attitude to death. It’s shot in a way that seems particularly Japanese – large open vistas which show the stark and fragile beauty of a landscape with tiny details which make up a composition. The music reflects this, perfectly underscoring poignant moments and adding light hearted relief to the less dramatic scenes.
All this talk of death and you might assume the film is a dirge to watch but that’s simply not true. Not only is it life affirming in its tone but it’s actually really funny; you’ll be wryly smirking at more than one of Daigo’s misfortunes. It’s this ability to perfectly balance serious subject matter on one hand with a lightness of tone while still remaining respectful and authentic in its presentation that makes Departures absolutely outstanding.
There’s only one scene which raises a critical eyebrow and that’s a montage of Daigo playing cello by the side of the road. Its aim is soulful reflection; its achievement is that of a bad Bon Jovi video outtake. This is an extremely minor gripe though and given the quality of the rest of the film, this blemish is easily forgiven.
A wonderful film: dramatic and subtle, powerful yet delicate; it’s an absolute must see.