Many viewers would be touched by the tale of an aspiring cellist, who accidentally becomes a mortician (an undertaker or a funeral director, to some) when he loses his dream job with a symphony orchestra. Many would even be stupefied by the ingenuity of the filmmakers to pick up a seemingly unique subject such as “encoffinment” as a subject for a feature film. Many others would be in awe of the Asian traditions that respect the dead, the elderly, and the institution of marriage until (and beyond!) “death do us part”. Many others would be equally intrigued by the Asian traditions that consider associating any profession relating to the dead as being somewhat demeaning and not worthy of public stature.
Director Yojiro Takita’s film is loosely based on Aoki Shinmon’s autobiographical book The Coffin Man, which was subsequently adapted for the screen by the scriptwriter Kundo Koyama. While Takita and Koyama need to be complimented on deciding to bring to the big screen a heartwarming tale of a disappearing tradition of subcontracted morticians in Japan, there is the strange overpowering element of music that is pivotal to the somewhat mysterious organic development of the movie’s plot and in all probability this is obviously disconnected to Shinmon’s original tale. As I was intrigued as how the duo of Takita and Koyama added the powerful element of music to the tale, I stumbled on a detail available on the Internet that the lead actor in Departures, Masahiro Motoki, was a member of a band before he took to acting and that the film Departures was a direct outcome of the actor reading Shinmon’s book. Evidently, Motoki had much to do with development of the final Takita-Koyama collaborative effort.
The film is overtly an essay on the art of taking care of the dead under the gaze of family members and friends. It is also a film that details the dressing of the dead body while covered by sheets and the application of make-up on the corpse to make it resemble the best living memory of the dead person, all the while ensuring that there is no disrespect to the dead and living present in the room. Yet the movie offers much more entertainment and reasons to introspect than these facets of the script that could be attributed to Shinmon’s book. A sub-text of the film deals with reverse urban migration, of going back to the villages as urban employment becomes unpredictable and unstable under recession. Much later in the film there is mention of salmon returning upstream from the oceans to die. The metaphor becomes one of the many Shintoist references where life’s patterns can be understood by studying nature. Here is a movie that attempts to improve life and marital compatibility by having a closer look, not at death, but at the dead.
There is somber black humor—a lovely dead girl is discovered by the morticians to be a transsexual during the embalming; typos in advertisements hilariously bring the world of morticians close to that of travel agents; and the viewers are shown a coveted meal of an octopus, disappearing into the waters of a canal because those who were to devour it realize it the sea creature is still alive and then decide to release it into natural freedom. Dead or live octopus, the film is replete with comparisons of the dead with the living and vice-versa. It is not without a connection when later in the film an elderly mortician, a widower, speaks like a sage—“The living eat the dead, unless they are plants”—as he cooks a puffer roe, the size of a poultry egg, surrounded by live indoor plants and an image of his dead wife who he fondly remembers.
Takita’s Departures won the coveted Best Foreign Film Oscar and the Grand Prize at Montreal Film Festival apart from some 30 other awards. This would not be surprising for anyone whose hearts rule their minds. If one looks closely at the honors the film has garnered, these are basically for the director, the actors, and the sound technicians—all well deserved. Yet the mainstay of the film, for me, was the music composed by a talented Japanese called Joe Hisaishi, violinist and composer, who transformed parts of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, Brahms’ Wiegenlied, and Bach’s Ave Maria as the basis of his own musical compositions for the film Departures. Joe Hisaishi is a stage name that the composer chose to indicate his fascination for the US composer Quincy Jones as Hisaishi is close to Quincy in written Japanese. Now Hisaishi is a name to watch for in film music as his music already has played a role to the success of at least three recent films—Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, and restored sound version of 1920’s silent Buster Keaton’s The General. And surprisingly not one of the thirty plus awards has gone to the talented composer.
A keen viewer of the film will recall the scene in the film where the cellist finds a jagged stone next to his cello with the musical notes of a piece called The Wayfarer. I can only guess the piece of music relates to Mahler’s The Wayfarer, a song of grief sung by the singer waiting for the beloved. The film has a subplot of the cellist turned mortician coming to terms with disappearance of his father when he is quite young, but already showing flair to play the cello. When the cellist finally gets to meet his father after harboring hate towards his missing parent for most of his life, he finds out his father is dead with just a cardboard box of possessions to leave behind. He has to embalm his dead father, with his dead fingers clutching a symbolic smooth stone. The viewer is never told why the father left his wife, while we can guess that the father whose gifts to his only son ranged from written musical scores and stones, both rough and smooth, was in remote touch with his son, while the son takes time to put the pieces together. Finally, why did the filmmakers choose the cello over a violin or a viola for the lead character's favorite musical instrument? Avid filmgoers might get a likely answer to that question by viewing Fellini's under-rated classic Orchestra Rehearsal (Prova d'orchestra) made in 1978.
This Japanese film can be lauded for its many virtues—a fascinating subject that is ecumenical (as it shies away from being typically Shinto or Buddhist, while one of the dead has a Christian/Jewish name, Naomi), endearing performances from the lead actor Masahiro Motoki and Akira Kurosawa’s stock actor in later films Tsutomu Yamazaki (Kagemusha and High and Low), beautiful adaptation of western classical music, and finally an uplifting theme of how any job can elicit respect of others if done well. It is no wonder the Oscar voters loved it, as this Japanese film meets many of the values that Hollywood traditionally celebrates.
Yet after the watching the movie, I wondered if any of those who thought the Japanese film was unique had ever seen a brilliant Iranian mockumentary film called Bitter Dreams (Khab-e Talkh) (2004) which deals with a parallel story of “encoffinment” of dead Muslim bodies in Iran. While encomiums are well deserved for the director and scriptwriter of the Japanese film Departures, the gaping holes in the story makes you wonder how this film could beat its co-nominated French film Laurent Cantet’s The Class in the eventual Oscar race in 2009. The film never explains the sudden exit of the cellist father from his life though both his parents never remarried, and his mother retained his father’s music record collection. The film never explains the need for the implicit father-son communication through rocks, smooth and jagged, even though rocks occupy an importance in Shintoism. The film never clarifies why the jagged rock came wrapped in the notes of The Wayfarer. The film never explains why the octopus that was to be eaten is freed, when the same individuals eat and enjoy dead chicken. There is mention of death being a “gateway” in the film but there is no discussion of afterlife in the film. For me Departures could have more fulfilling if the trio of Takati, Motoki, and Koyama had developed the film a wee bit further developing the suggested Shinto imagery in the film of birds realigning their positions in formation flight, of stones, and of salmons. It would then have not just won the hearts of the viewers but also their minds. Then the deaths would truly be “food for thought” of the living.
P.S. The Iranian film Bitter Dreams and the French film The Class have earlier been reviewed on this blog. A trivia for those interested: Takati, Motoki, Hisaishi and Yamazaki are all December born!! Do they also think alike?