Film Review: Departures (Okuribito)

The surprise winner of the 2009 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, Departures (Okuribito), is a visually stunning film. This Japanese film is both a reverential and humorous look at death and its taboo place in society. Examining this difficult subject, Departures manages to stay on the right side of sentimentality, but only just.

Departures follows the story of Daigo Kobayashi (Masahiro Motoki) who after losing his dream job is forced, by financial concerns, to relocate to his childhood home in Yamagata (north-eastern prefecture). Daigo’s concern over moving his wife, Mika (Ryoko Hirosue) from Tokyo and his patriarchal need to provide, sees him answering an extremely vague job ad in the local newspaper, which he wrongly assumes is for a travel agency. Daigo finds himself working as an encoffineer (nokanshi) under the guidance of the lovingly paternal and slightly mischievous Sasaki (Tsutomu Yamazaki).  Taking on the unusual task of encoffination (nokanshiki), Daigo finally feels useful; however the social shame of the position threatens to destroy his marriage and old friendships.

Departures is the first feature film script written by Kundo Koyama. Koyama honed his skills as a writer on the awesome Japanese TV show, Iron Chef, which may be why there are so many food references in the film. It is perhaps during the specifically ‘Japanese’ moments that the film is at its best. The attention given to the food eaten and the gastronomic experience absorbs the viewer into the story. However it is the ‘traditional’ art of encoffination, which is both fascinating and beautiful, that holds the film together.

The complex ritual of encoffination is performed as a ceremony, with strict guidelines and running procedures, the idea being to maintain the dignity of the deceased as well as readying them for cremation. With only little overtures to Buddhism/Shinto the encoffineers perform a sort of exquisitely sorrowful magic act in front of the audience of family and friends, transforming the appearance of the dead to one of calm beauty. Although Yamagata seems to be a place where only the young and/or attractive die (with one exception), reality can be ignored for the sake of visual wonder; it is fiction after all.

Encoffination does not seem to be a common practice in Japan, but is instead is a rite purchased in a niche market. It is also hard to tell (from some very limited research on the internet) whether it is in fact ‘traditional’ or a modern practice interpreted as tradition. Certainly the practice of readying the body for cremation is not new, but it is the film itself which seems to have spread the ceremonial practice of encoffination into new regions of Japan.

The problems with the film are most obvious when the film strays away from the workings of Sasaki’s company, NK Agency. It is in scenes in the baths and between Daigo and Mika, that the film seems to drag. This is emphasised by a hit and miss soundtrack. Largely the score is divine orchestra pieces focused around the cello, which heighten the film experience; unfortunately there are also some moments of accentuated melodrama, with soaring pieces that annoyingly snap you out of the story.

Departures is a glorious film to watch with the changing of the seasons seamlessly woven into the story and the charm of the ceremonial practice it focuses on. Like an attractive person, however, it gets away with a lot due to looks. There is a stunningly ridiculous scene with the protagonist playing the cello in a deserted field. Yes it is pretty, no it doesn’t add anything to the story except 5 mins of screen time. It is the ‘exotic’ practice of nokanshiki and this sense of discovering something which is hidden, which has made the film a success both within Japan and internationally. The film works largely because it is such an interesting look at both death, and its place in society, even if it is not very realistic. Departures, even with its faults, is one of only a few films that manages to tackle the subject of death with the sense of respect it deserves. 


Australian Release Date: 15th October 2009

Director: Yojiro Takita

Cast: Masahiro Motoki, Ryoko Hirosue, Tsutomu Yamazaki, Kimiko Yo, Takashi Sasano, Kazuko Yoshiyuki


Image credits 1, 2 & 3