Departures | おくりびと
Released: September 13th, 2008
Director: Yôjirô TAKITA
Run Time: 130 min
Tags: 2008, academy award, buddhism, cello, death, drama, impurity, Kimiko Yo, love, mortician, onsen, oscar, ostracism, Ryoko Hirosue, shinto, unclean, Yôjirô Takita
In Japan, when does a person become no longer a person? Traditionally, even after a person’s heart stopped beating, a number of important ceremonies were performed. Families which had the time and money to do so set the body aside for several days, for a period of mogari. In fact, during this period of being called, fed, bathed, clothed, and rested, some people considered the dead to actually be revived.1 Takita’s Departures is perhaps the most thorough artistic examination of this phenomenon to exist today. Powerful and sharp, the film’s breadth leaves nothing to waste.
Both Shintoism and Buddhism have a strong influence on the spirituality of Japan’s people. Due to the syncretic nature of Shinto and Buddhism, most “life” events are handled by Shinto and “death” or “afterlife” events are handled by Buddhism—for example, it is typical in Japan to register or celebrate a birth at a Shinto shrine, while funeral arrangements are generally dictated by Buddhist tradition—although the division is not exclusive.2 Departures takes a path which reveals many of the most intimate aspects of both ideologies and showcases their interconnected relationship. Examining the Shinto idea of impurity is an important concept in the film. The importance of purification, the innate powers of renewal within the world, and the disruptive influences of unnatural and premature death and its resultant pollutions are themes that play a paramount role in the life of Daigo and finally come full circle in a way that is reminiscent of the Buddhist idea of samsara or the cycle of rebirth.3
Opening scenes of the film introduce Daigo, a Tokyo cellist who is forced to move back to his hometown after his orchestra goes bankrupt. Living with his wife in an old coffee house his mother used to own, Daigo, stuck with an expensive cello collecting dust and desperate to find work, turns to an ambiguous advertisement for a “departures agency”. Needless to say, Daigo accepts the position and the film begins its journey which begins with the most challenging of assignements. The idea that death is impure takes over and various elements of style, specifically, the shot selection and continuity, combine to establish the impurity of death and later represent Daigo’s transition towards embracing death.
Style allows the concept of the impurity surrounding death to climax in two scenes where Daigo bathes at an onsen and then returns to his home. To understand the stylistic significance of these scenes, it is necessary to reference the assembly of scenes leading up to the onsen. After assisting in the clean up of a two-week old decomposing corpse, director Takita uses a close-up shot of Daigo. His face is the focus and his emotions are in plain sight. The distress and weariness is powerfully conveyed by this shot and it becomes obvious that the job has taken a toll on him for the day. Daigo’s eyes look empty, and the bags underneath are more than noticeable. His wardrobe is messy, with his tie loosened and collar unbuttoned. He looks to be a physical and emotional mess after his first day on the job.
In the following scene, Daigo is much more composed. His clothing, although his tie is absent, is much more consistent and nothing looks out of place; he looks to be casually but professionally dressed. His face conveys far less stress; the bags under his eyes are gone, and the natural light coming through the windows of the bus makes his face look more lively, which contrasts the low-light used when he is at work. Most importantly, the scene utilizes longer shots. This change deviates stylistically from the previous close-up and helps to create distance from Daigo’s situation. We see the impact death’s impurity in the close-up of Daigo while he is still at work, but when he departs the catalyst of the impurity, which is his place of employment, the camera adjusts to the long-shot to stylistically run parallel to the change in setting and represent the distance from his work. Thus, by using the long-shot in unison with his departure from work, it creates a stylistic boundary between the impurity of his work/death and the outside world.
To go further in regards to the change in setting, Daigo is riding in a bus with young school girls. The addition of movement via the method of transportation and youth help to create a more definite boundary between Daigo’s workplace that caters to the dead, and the outside world where the image is full of life: specifically, movement and youth. During the use of this intermediary scene between his workplace and the onsen, it becomes obvious that the stickiness of death is impossible to escape. This is conveyed by Daigo’s reaction to smell. Simply leaving the scene and his workplace is not enough to remove the smell of death from Daigo’s body. The impurity of death is not ephemeral, but lingering, and Daigo must cleanse himself to remove it. The scent of death survives on his clothes and skin prompting him to visit an onsen.
The shot selection once again changes at this point. A return to the close-up shot is seen at the onsen and this immediately reinforces that the impurity of death is sticky by creating a relationship with the last close-up of Daigo’s face at his workplace which showcased the distress on his face. The director has returned us to the perspective that was used when Daigo was struggling with his “near death” experience and this links the two scenes with the sequence of shots in the bus serving as a bridge between the two. At the onsen, Daigo furiously cleanses himself. We see him washing his face repeatedly and blowing water in and out of his nose and ears as if to cleanse his insides. A shot of his fully naked body is used and given the liveliness of the scene, it emphasizes the contrast between life and death as his entire body is seen alive and moving. The music employed is equally energetic and string instruments are heard in the background as his frantic pace causes the soap to slip out of his hands. The music is characteristic for Daigo and his youth (given the fact that he still plays his cello from when he was a child throughout the film), and in this manner, the music conveys a return to youth and creates distance from death. His return home is the climax of his duel with the impurity of death. The sight of a whole dead chicken on the dinner table reminds Daigo of his day as he runs to the sink to vomit. This brings the impurity of death to an emotional level and not just one that is physical and can be rinsed away by the water at an onsen. As the scene progresses, Daigo brings his wife Mika close to him and in a very sensual manner, begins to remove her clothes and rub her skin against his.
The composition of this two shot is interesting in that the dead chicken is lying the foreground with Daigo and Mika in the background. The composition alludes to the theme of the film as death is almost always nearby and repeats the idea that death is inescapable. Daigo proceeds to pull and grasp at Mika’s clothes in order to reveal more skin. Although the scene is very sensual, it is clear that being close to a living person, feeling the warmth of Mika’s skin, and smelling the scent of life is what Daigo is after. This is where his departure from death becomes complete. He has cleansed his body and the scene with Mika helps him cleanse his mind and soul.
As the film progresses, Daigo’s reaction to death changes. He is no longer afraid or effected by the impurity of death. In fact, the impurity of death ceases to exist for him. We see a transition in responsibility, with Daigo first assisting, then performing the ceremonial preparation of the body in front of his boss Shōei, and then finally doing everything on his own. We see contrasting scenes, where Daigo is disrobing and cleansing the bodies of the dead; which is in stark contrast to his episodes at the onsen and with Mika. The sound of string instruments play again as he prepares dead bodies and this is yet another stylistic departure from previous scenes in the film. In the end, the change in style and Daigo’s position in the movie shows that he transitions from the impurity of death and embraces it. And in the manner Departures remains true to its title.
The culmination of Departures resulted in a rush of awards in Japan as well as at festivals throughout the world, Departures soon became the first Japanese film in history to win the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 2008. Considering benchmark films such as Akira Kurosawa’s Rashōmon, Kinugasa’s Gate of Hell, and Inagaki’s Samurai, The Legend of Musashi technically won honorary awards for best foreign language film after World War II, Departures’ surprise win can be considered an even greater accomplishment.
Revenue:$61,010,217 (Japan) (12 April, 2009)
$651,100 (South Korea) (18 January, 2009)
£5,211 (UK) (6 December, 2009)
€436,939 (Italy) (9 May, 2010)
$1,542,989 (USA) (20 June, 2010)
Awards:2008 – Hawaii International Film Festival – Favorite Feature
2008 – Hochi Film Awards – Best Film
2008 – Montréal World Film Festival – Grand Prix des Amériques – Yôjirô Takita
2008 – Nikkan Sports Film Awards – Best Director; Best Film
2009 – Academy Awards – Best Foreign Language Film of the Year
2009 – Asia Pacific Screen Awards – Best Performance by an Actor
2009 – Asian Film Awards – Best Actor
2009 – Awards of the Japanese Academy – Best Actor; Best Cinematography; Best Director; Best Editing; Best Film; Best Lighting; Best Screenplay; Best Sound; Best Supporting Actor; Best Supporting Actress
2009 – Blue Ribbon Awards – Best Actor
2009 – Kinema Junpo Awards – Best Actor; Best Director; Best Film; Best Screenplay
2009 – Mainichi Film Concours – Best Film; Best Sound
2009 – Palm Springs International Film Festival – Best Narrative Feature
2009 – Udine Far East Film Festival – Audience Award – Yôjirô Takita; Black Dragon Audience Award – Yôjirô Takita
2009 – Wisconsin Film Festival – Best Narrative Feature
2009 – Yokohama Film Festival – Best Director; Best Film; Best Supporting Actress – Kimiko Yo and Ryoko Hirosue (tied)
Production Companies:Amuse Soft Entertainment
Departures Film Partners
Mainichi Broadcasting System (MBS)
Tokyo Broadcasting System (TBS)
Distributors:Shochiku Company (2008) (Japan) (theatrical)
Golden Screen Cinemas (2008) (Malaysia) (all media)
Golden Village Entertainment (2008) (Singapore) (all media)
KD Media (2008) (South Korea) (all media)
Madman Entertainment (2008) (Australia) (all media)
Regent Releasing (2009) (USA) (theatrical) (subtitled)
Wild Bunch Benelux (2009) (Netherlands) (theatrical)
CN Entertainment (2009) (Hong Kong) (DVD)
E1 Entertainment (2009) (Canada) (DVD)
Emperor Motion Pictures (2009) (Hong Kong) (all media)
KOOL Filmdistribution (2009) (Germany) (all media)
Lark Films Distribution (2009) (Hong Kong) (all media)
Madman Entertainment (2009) (New Zealand) (all media)
Metropolitan Filmexport (2009) (France) (all media)
Paris Filmes (2009) (Brazil) (all media)
Regent Releasing (2009) (Canada) (all media)
Videorama (2009) (Greece) (all media)
Zeus Films (2009) (Taiwan) (all media)
E1 Entertainment (2010) (USA) (DVD)
Alfa Films (2010) (Argentina) (all media)
Arrow Films (2010) (UK) (DVD) (Blu-ray)
E1 Entertainment (2010) (USA) (DVD)
Studio S Entertainment (2010) (Sweden) (theatrical) (D-Cinema)
Studio S (2010) (Sweden) (DVD)
Transeuropa Video Entertainment (TVE) (2010) (Argentina) (DVD)
Alfa Films (2010) (Argentina) (all media)
Arrow Films (2010) (UK) (DVD) (Blu-ray)
Technical Specifications:Color: Color
Sound Mix: Dolby Digital
Camera: Arricam Cameras, Zeiss and Angenieux Lenses
Laboratory: Imagica Corporation, Shinagawa-ku, Tokyo, Japan (prints)
Film negative format (mm/video inches): 35 mm (Kodak Vision2 500T 5218)
Cinematographic process: Digital Intermediate (2K) (master format); Spherical (source format)
Printed film format: 35 mm; D-Cinema
Aspect ratio: 1.85 : 1
Citation:1. Becker, Carl. “Aging, Dying, and Bereavement in Contemporary Japan.” In Disciplinary Approaches to Aging Vol. 3, edited by Donna Lind Infeld, Ph. D., 90–115. New York, NY: Routledge, 2002.
2. Wikipedia. “Shinto.” Accessed November 5, 2010. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shinto.
3. Reader, Ian. Religion in Contemporary Japan. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1991