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It always surprises me how a film is dismissed when people rely on their favourite reviewer’s opinions based on one viewing. Departures won the 2009 Oscar for best foreign film. Few of my friends saw it when it was released in London. It received mixed reviews. Ebert says that he saw it three times and chose it as one of his ‘great’ films. Yoshika Okuyama considers the Shinto and Buddhist metaphors in the film http://digitalcommons.unomaha.edu . Tony Rayns attacks the Academy ‘elders ‘ who voted for the Oscar because they must be feeling their mortality (Lincoln Centre Film Society) and declares that the film will be forgotten tomorrow. The more measured reviews concentrate on one aspect of the film while ignoring others. The predictability and superficiality of its narrative is often mentioned. The subtleties of its social comments are ignored.
Although the film is not specifically about an old woman I chose it for the film group to follow-up on Amour because it addresses social issues. The film is in some part character driven in that it is based on the voyage of self-discovery of a young man. It is through this narrative that two important social issues are addressed. The issue of the ‘absent father’ is minor compared with the prominent reinvention of funeral rites. I will concentrate on these two aspects, and consider why I felt slightly uncomfortable as I mentioned on my blog of December 12th.
The absent father theme: Daigo’s journey starts in Tokyo where when his orchestra is disbanded because of lack of audience, he finds that he has to sell the expensive cello that he can no longer afford. The price of living in a big city is too high and he is not good enough a musician to compete and find another job. He decides with the approval of Mica his wife to return to the house of his mother now deceased. In this small town some vestiges of old Japan still exist in the shape of the public bath run by an old woman who knew Daigo as a child. We learn through the bath lady recollections that Daigo was very controlled when his father left home and never cried in front of his mother but sobbed when he came to the baths. In a scene when Mica finds the classical records that his father left, Daigo shows how much he resents this desertion. We know that his father was responsible for Daigo’s love of music and in one touching moment he retrieves the cello of his childhood and finds a stone letter (token of love that his father gave him). Daigo finds a new job (more of this later) as an encoffinner at the NK agency. A very wise father figure Sasaki instructs him into respect for the dead and the love of life. His wife cannot cope with her husband’s unclean job and asks him to resign but he has found his calling and refuses. Mika leaves him only to return pregnant. Throughout the film Daigo does not express strong emotions. He learns that his father has died and shows no interest. He is urged by the NK agency’s secretary to go and see him. She confesses to him that she also has left a child and has never seen him again. It is then that he raises his voice: “Are parents who dump their kids always like that?” and runs into the street in uncontrollable anger. This expression is transformed by the secretary’s confession from a personal feeling to a comment on parents’ neglect of children. By going to see his dead father and preparing him for a peaceful departure, the childhood hurt is healed. Daigo unclenches his father’s fingers and finds the stone he had given him. There is closure when Daigo gives his pregnant Mica the stone letter thus closing the death/life cycle. The story is predictable but is told in a unlinear fashion with scenes of nature and music shots and striking scenes of death rituals.
Death Rituals: The absent father theme is the basis of the story but consideration of the value of death rituals showing respect for the dead body and healing the bereaved is by far the most prominent feature of the film. It seems to me that the film pleads for reinventing Randy David ‘cultural tools” for contemporary life.
I had to search far and wide for a review that addresses the prominent subject, that of encoffinment. I found two excellent articles. In the Philippines Daily Enquirer: I quote Randy (sic) David : http://opinion.inquirer.net/39858/departures ; Departures are wrenching moments, and every culture creates its own way of easing them. Religious ones do this by projecting a life that does not end with death but only gets transformed. Secular world views reject this illusion and, with it, often the entire stock of cultural tools that had made it easy for past generations to find meaning in death. The modern world has generally not been very good at filling up the spaces vacated by religious rituals. There remains in us, says Jurgen Habermas, an agnostic, the acute “awareness of something missing” that techno-rational culture has not been able to address in any satisfying way.
And Okumaya’s conclusion: The film carries an important message for those living in the muen shakai (a society of no relationship) , where more and more Japanese are ‘living and dying alone as never before – an inevitable consequence of declining marriage, declining childbirth and a sharply extended lifespan. As a nuclear family becomes a common unit of family and the Confucian concept of kinship slowly dissolves in Japan, funeral traditions that used to be carried out by the family members are slowly abandoned. . .
In search of a job Daigo gets an interview with the boss of the NK agency, that he believes to be a travel agency when in fact it is an encoffinment business. He gets hired on the spot by the fatherly boss who offers him a very high salary. We learn that Daigo has never seen a coffin being too young at the deaths of his grandparents and abroad when his mother died. In the same scene the secretary hands him a box of business cards in his name. We understand here that people are not familiar with funeral rituals and that there is a niche market in providing this service.
It is useful to know that the graceful, caring, healing ceremony of encoffinment as shown in the pre-title sequence and further ceremonies is not a traditional Japanese custom. Okayama tells us that ritual preparation of the dead body for cremation used to be performed by family members: ‘Contrary to the impression that the film viewer might have, witnessing an undertaker’s graceful preparation of a corpse is not a common Japanese experience. Furthermore, no standardized encoffining practice is performed in modern-day Japan, nor is it standardized among Japanese morticians. This is clearly stated by the boss of the NK agency who also tells us later that he started his business after the death of his wife who was his first subject. Daigo the main protagonist discovers and appropriates for himself his boss’s attitude to the dead at the same time as experiencing the prejudice and discrimination against undertakers and people dealing with the dead.
The first experience of Daigo in his new job is witnessing the upsetting conditions of an old woman – and her flat – who was discovered days after her death when the process of putrefaction had set in. We are spared the sight of the dead body but what does happen to it if not tended to is suggested by Daigo’s uncontrollable vomiting. The sex scene and retrieval of the childhood cello that follow encapsulate the idea of death and decay, life and consolation. This to me is a comment on today’s societies where people can die and not be missed by anybody.*
I will come back to the other experiences of Daigo that explore the grieving processes of different families. But I would like to consider the pre-titles sequence that show the apprentice Daigo preparing the corpse of what appears to be a young woman but is biological a man who committed suicide. I do not know enough about Japanese society to interpret this highlighting of the episode as a comment on attitudes to transgender or/and suicide. But we see later in the film that the ceremony did reconcile the disapproving father into accepting his son.
Throughout the film we are shown many scenes of the preparation of the dead for their peaceful departures. The tending and washing of the body, the delicate touching, the clothing, the make up are executed by the master and his apprentice with the grace and care of a devotion. These repeated gestures elicit in the mourners who witness the procedure, and the viewers, feelings of respect for the dead body. Conflict between members of the family do occur but seem to be resolved and support is given to the chief mourner. Thus what is considered an unclean occupation in Japan performed by lower status people becomes in this film a noble profession. Both Daigo’s wife and his childhood friend who initially disapproved of his defiling job, are led to respect and admire him.
I would like to go back to the gut feeling of unease that I had on my first viewing. The gestures of the encoffinners were beautiful to look at. They expressed infinite respect for the body and spared the mourners sensitivities. The process healed the family and grieving was sometimes expressed openly and conflicts resolved. What was it that disturbed me?
Let us consider the deceased. There were six females and four males. In each of the sequences involving the deceased we are given some hints about them and their background. I am not qualified to comment on the details of the rooms that would socially place the family but the attending mourners are significant.
The old woman who died alone and discovered two weeks later. As mentioned above this points out the tragedy of old people dying alone and not missed by anybody.
The charcoal suicide of the transgender son. This pre-title sequence is picked up again after a long flashback. Here we see a beautiful young woman. Her face is seen in close-ups and Daigo comments: She is beautiful, she looks alive. The stress on touch is cinematically replaced by the gaze on a beautiful face. And Daigo puts a bright red dress on top of the ritual white one. The difference between the mother and father about the acceptance of his sexual identity is expressed but the father does come to terms with it after the ceremony.
The wife and mother: Again an extremely beautiful face is offered in close-up and even extreme close-up to our gaze. Daigo’s voice over: One grown cold. restored to beauty for all eternity. A daughter fetches her mother’s favourite lipstick, and there are mourners of different ages. The grateful husband stricken by grief : She’s never looked so beautiful
The rebellious youth has died in her boyfriend’s motor bike accident. Her mother is deeply upset by her appearance with profuse spread out red hair and does not want to recognise her as her daughter. She demands that she is made up as the respectable image on her portrait that shows her in a dark suit and white shirt with straight well-kept hair. Here the mother and father bicker on the responsibility of her turning out as she did and the father pounces on the boyfriend. Another mourner harangues the young friends : All of you get out. It is your fault Miyuki is dead . Can you make up for that?. Well? Work all your lives like him at a job no one else would do? (there may be problems of translation in the subtitles).
The grandmother: Again she looks beautiful and is surrounded by grandchildren who look rather cheerful. One of them bring socks and says that her grandmother wished she could wear like the young ones. One of the women helps Daigo to put them on the dead woman’s feet and the grandchildren wave good-bye.
The bath lady : She dropped dead gathering wood for the public bath. She was the keeper of old traditions and opposed her son’s advice to sell the baths. She passed on her knowledge about how to run the baths to an old customer. In a scene we are shown that she seeks his approval of the way she looked wearing a bowed scarf round her neck. Daigo ties it in the same way. Her son holds her wrinkled hands but her face shows no sign of age.
Of the four males we did not see the man who hanged himself in a hotel.
The christian child: This sequence was brief and shows only Daigo placing a cross on the child’s chest and a priest officiating.
The grandfather : unfortunately I could not find any reference to explain the display of dolls in the house of the grandfather or the funeral procession that followed the casketing. The only preparing we see is the shaving.
Daigo’s father : the final scene of the film that brings closure. Daigo prepares his father for his peaceful departure. He shaves him. He unclenches the fingers and finds the round stone that he had given his father. The childhood hurt is healed and he gives the round stone to Mika who is the bearer of new life.
It is this gender imbalance that disturbed me. Why chose to show women as a cross-section of society? The women are types except for the bath lady whose age had been commented on. Her hands are old but her face is not. It is the beautiful female face that is offered to our gaze and commented on. Not the male’s. The stress on female appearance is also highlighted: the satin sheets and pillows, the red dress, the hat, the scarf, the socks, the hair, the lipstick. Are we valued for our appearance even in death?
For men it is the shaving that is shown. Daigo’s father face is important but in a more personal way. It is this face that Daigo could not remember that brings him to tears and effects closure.
I am at an age where I remember the strict funeral rituals followed by the family in a community based on religion. I remember the rejection of these rituals by my parents’ generation as being primitive and not ‘modern’. And now when my friends are dying, I attend funerals which involve a minimum of established form. Departures shows the importance of death rituals and made me question my knowledge of funeral customs.
*(In the Europe 2003 heat wave, in France, 400 dead people were left unclaimed and after a special task force looked for relatives, there still remained 57 unclaimed dead who were buried in the presence of the President.)