The original Japanese title of “Departures” (2008) is “Okuribito” which means literally “a person who sends” in Japanese or in this case, “encoffiner,” a person who performs a ritual at funeral before putting the body into a coffin. But you should not let the film’s subject matter put you off watching the film because “Departures” offers a fascinating insight into life and death as well as a moving drama with universal themes. And believe me or not, it is also a comedy.
“Departures” begins with an amusing scene in which young okuribioto Daigo Kobayashi (Masahiro Motoki) is about to perform the ritual for the first time without a help from his employer and senior okuribito Ikuei Sasaki (Tsutomu Yamazaki). But in the midst of the solemn rite, Daigo notices something unexpected about the body. Not knowing what to do, Daigo asks for Ikuei’s advice, but for what?
After the opening sequence that sets the overall tone of the entire film with the low-key comic approach, “Departures” follows the story of Daigo, formerly a cello player by profession, who starts to work as okuribito (formally called “nokanshi”) in his hometown. During the film’s two hours we are introduced to the work of nokanshi, which can be very hard at times, but the Oscar-winning film is also a great success as a touching drama about an ordinary man who discovers the meaning of his life through deaths.
Though some part of the script looks rather conventional, “Departures” benefits from the fine cast who has successfully become believable characters you can relate to. Masahiro Motoki is very good as the mild-mannered protagonist and so is Ryoko Hirosue (seen in “Wasabi” opposite Jean Reno) as his loving wife, but the film’s best performance is that of veteran Tsutomu Yamazaki (Juzo Itami’s “The Funeral”), whose slightly enigmatic character adds humor and humanity to the story as quiet employer (and mentor-like figure) of Daigo.
Shot in several locations (mainly Sakata City and Tsuruoka City) in Yamagata Prefecture, Japan, “Departures” has stunningly beautiful scenes of the country, especially the one in which Daigo plays the cello against the snow-capped Mt. Chokai. Also, composer Jo Hisaishi (best known for Hayao Miyazaki’s acclaimed animated films) gives a powerful and emotional musical score.
There is no word in English that exactly describes what a “nokanshi” does. He is not a mortician or embalmer, and not every funeral in Japan is attended by a nokanshi. I am Japanese, but I never even heard of the name before watching the film. Interestingly it is star Masahiro Motoki who thought of making a movie about nokanshi. According to the interview with him (in a pamphlet I bought at the theater in Kyoto), Motoki was inspired by his experiences in India and one book written by a real-life nokanshi. The book (though not credited in the film) is “Nokanhu Nikki” (“Diary of a Nokanhu”) by Shinmon Aoki published in 1993. It took more than ten years for him to realize his idea of making this film and I am sure the wait was more than worth it.
In “Departures” director Yojiro Takita (“Onmyoji”) did a fine job of telling a good story with just the right amount of sentiment, humor and pathos.