This Japanese film won last years Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film and won international acclaim elsewhere, especially for the lead actor, Masahiro Motoki. Motoki plays a young man who apprentices to an elder gentleman who prepares the dead for burial. As the film opens, Daigo (Motoki) is assisting his mentor in a preparation when his boss asks him if he’d like to take over. He does so, and discovers that the beautiful woman he’s prepping is really a man. Be prepared for anything in this business.
The film flashes back to a symphony orchestra with Daigo playing cello. After the performance though, they all learn that the orchestra is dissolving. Having invested a huge sum on his cello, Daigo is at a loss. He and his wife decide to move to the vacant home of his deceased mother, where he will look for a job. When he answers an ad for Departures, “no experience required”, he guesses it might be a job with a travel agency. Not exactly, as he quickly discovers.
After some hesitation, he takes to the job (his boss suspected he was a natural). His wife is repelled by the idea (as are some of his friends), however, and she moves back to Tokyo, at least until he “comes to his senses”. The stigma of the occupation is addressed in a wonderfully low-key style. The preparation of the deceased for burial or cremation is treated with sensitivity and caring. We are shown the techniques of the art in a way that surprisingly demands respect. Eventually, even his wife comes around.
There are some really lovely scenes, such as when Daigo is standing on a bridge and glimpses salmon swimming upstream to die. Departures really is a meditation on death and leave-taking, the passage, as one character says through one gate into another realm.
The best description of the film though, comes from the observation in a voice over (the movie has a natural inclination toward voice overs) of the work of Daigo’s mentor: he worked with a calmness, a precision and a gentle affection. A heartfelt film, that will put you in a reverential space.