“Departures” is the story of Daigo Kobayashi, a passionate cellist with a dream job in an orchestra, who finds himself abruptly out of job — and in huge debt for a very pricey cello — when the orchestra dissolves.
What do you do when your dream has fizzled and you’ve got to re-group?
You go home, and you look for another job. Daigo and his apparently unflappable wife, Miko, head to Hirano, in northeastern Japan, where Daigo grew up. Daigo has inherited the house he grew up in from his mother, who died while he was abroad some years earlier. (His father abandoned the family when he was a child.)
Daigo sees a job listing for handling “departures” that doesn’t require experience, and, assuming it’s some sort of job with a travel agency, decides toapply. Turns out that “departures” was a typo. It’s the departed that he’ll have to handle.
The business is all about “casketing,” i.e., a Japanese ritual in which dead bodies are prepared for the casket and, at the end of the ceremony, placed in the casket. And it pays really well.
Daigo, who has never witnessed a death nor been part of memorializing one, can’t say no. He’s enticed by the money and Sasaki, the endearing curmudgeon who owns the business, and he’s frankly too nice and well intentioned to find a way to back out of the situation. He ends up going along for the ride.
It’s a great ride.
“Departures,” like “Ghosted,” is a window into another culture’s approach to death. And it’s an interesting one. On the one hand, the ritual of casketing is truly gorgeous — a reverential process that involves symbolically wiping away the pain accrued during time on earth, dressing the body in burial clothes, and making the person up (if the family requests it), to look his or her best, before placing him or her in the casket. These are all things that happen in the U.S. at a mortuary, but behind closed doors.
Here you, and the family, who sit nearby, see it up close. You’d think that a culture that created this lovely ceremony would be better at handling these situations than we are. Nope — at least, not according to the movie. Turns out the Japanese are just as death-leery as Americans. Daigo is too embarrassed to tell his wife what he’s up to. He lets her assume he’s working for a travel agency. (There’s a predictable reveal and accompanying drama over this one.) And he’s ostracized by people in the community who disdain what he’s doing.
And the grief-stricken families are just as un-done and un-resigned to death as those we know. Each death, each family, brings its own assortment of heartbreaking and sometimes funny complications. The beautiful young woman, a suicide, who they discover, in the process of casketing her, is actually a man, leaving the two casketers in a quandary: make “her” up as a woman or as a man? The fight that breaks out, among the family and friends, over the question of who’s responsible for the death of a young girl killed on a motorbike.
We see it all. So do Daigo and Sasaki. And we watch as people struggle to come to terms with their losses. Along the way, there’s a nod to the “ambiguous” ceremony-less losses in life — people, gone but not dead, and dreams, for instance — and how hard it is to wrestle with them, as well.
It’s all very real, and very touching. Ultimately, there are many opportunities for one realization: It’s a privilege to be here, walking around, living our lives. And the death of a loved one, even someone we don’t know well, is an opportunity to honor that fact for ourselves.
I left the movie humming with appreciation, both for the movie and my life.
Elizabeth DeVita-Raeburn is the author of The Empty Room: Surviving Sibling Loss, a memoir and journalistic exploration of sibling loss. Her brother, Ted, suffered from a rare immune deficiency disorder and spent 8 ½ years in an isolation room behind a plastic curtain before he died. He was one of two boys upon whom the movie “The Boy in the Plastic Bubble” was based. She is a contributing writer for More magazine, and has also written for Self, Discover, Psychology Today and Harper’s Bazaar, among other publications. Elizabeth is currently working on a new book, The Death of Cancer, with her father, Dr. Vincent T. DeVita. She lives in New York City with her husband, writer Paul Raeburn, and her son, Henry. To learn more about Elizabeth and her work go to: www.devitaraeburn.com or visit her blog: www.tedishere.blogspot.comTags: grief, hope