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Original title: Okuribito
Genre Drama
Year: 2008

Departures is a masterpiece by Yôjirô Takita (Onmyogi), transcending Japanese culture and breaking into the very essence of humanity. The story follows Daigo, a cellist who returns to his home town after the disbanding of his city orchestra and the crashing sound of his dream to become a professional musician. From the age of 6, his cello was his source of inspiration and channel for emotional turmoil as a result of his father's abandonment. Now after purchasing an expensive cello, his destiny points him elsewhere... to a casketing agency, where he will truly discover himself.

Departures is an emotional journey that coerces its audience with a heavy douse of comedy, before nestling into the sombre shadows of respect, dignity, honour, sentimentality and above all, death. The themes may be inherently Japanese in terms of culture and values, but the film is translated into a series of emotions that everyone can relate to.

The loss of a loved one, the anger resulting from an untimely passing, the guilt aroused from unspoken words and the tragedy associated with passing into the afterlife all imbue a deep sense of grief. Departures doesn't dwell on these aspects, but embraces them like a kind stranger comforting a mourner.

On paper, it's difficult to imagine the film being commercially viable with its obscure themes and narrow appeal. It's strictly art house alright, but its secret is that it's so much more than just a film. It breaks the fourth wall to reach out to its audience for the sake of a cathartic, cleansing and restorative experience. Empathy gives us a chance to connect with the characters as they're able to draw closure on their loved ones through the ritualistic encoffinment ceremony.

The casketing agency arrives to prepare the bodies for their coffins on behalf of the undertakers. The family is seated as the professionals cleanse and prepare the bodies for cremation. The concept may seem morbid, but the ceremony is conducted with such deep respect and dignity that it enables the family to say their final goodbyes with a sense of relief rather than remorse. This Japanese tradition is intriguing, not purely as a morbid fascination, but as a final parting farewell and honour to the dearly departed.

The performances are excellent, most evident in the teacher-student relationship between Daigo and Ikuei, played by Masahiro Motoki (Shiko funjatta, Sôseiji) and Tsutomu Yamazaki (Ososhiki, Go). The cinematography is largely invisible, but also carries the same grace and humility associated with the film's content. At first, Departures could easily be mistaken for a comedy with a series of incredibly funny situational comedy sequences involving Daigo.

However, these moments simply break the ice for the audience like a speaker's opening joke to create a familiarity and relaxed rapport. From this point, the director skillfully integrates the audience into the role of curious onlooker, moving more steadily towards being Daigo's companion as we see his story unfold from over his shoulder.

Depatures is a beautiful art film that carries such emotional depth that it will be difficult for even the most jaded of audience's not to resonate. It's not contrived, manipulated or even close to being a tearjerker. Departures is a film that earns your trust, your respect and your tears. It's been so lovingly created that you can't help but appreciate every moment. The sounds of the fine linen being so carefully adorned, the solemn expressions of the encoffiners at work, the ancient Japanese tradition... it's a cultural, soulful exploration that seeks to disarm deep-seated strongholds.

After reading this review, some people may feel that they'd make themselves too vulnerable if they saw it in a cinema, but there's something powerful about experiencing this film in a room full of people with the luscious orchestral score. Its deep, humanistic outpouring is extraordinarily rare for a film, comparable to As It Is In Heaven. Like a swan, it carries such beauty and grace in its sadness that it would be a mistake to wait for it to become available as a rental or not to see it at all. To see Departures is to experience something that society seems to have lost... a soulful human connectedness that transcends race, language, religion and culture.

The bottom line: Cathartic. 


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