Reviewed by: sukting

March 25, 2009

Rating: four

How long 130 minutes


This is the Academy Award Winner for Best Foreign Language Film in 2009. "Departures" takes a sensitive journey into the heartland of Japan. It takes an astonishingly beautiful look at a sacred part of Japan's cultural heritage. This is the second Japanese movie I watched after ‘Suspect x’ in 2009.


Daigo(Masahiro Motori) and Sasaki(Tsutomu Yamazaki) are at a home of the deceased. It is someone young who has long hair. Daigo is cleansing the body with alcohol when he feels something. He whispers this to Sasaki who also discovers the same. Sasaki then asks what make-up the family prefers. The father answers – the female makeup although he is his son. Daigo then recalls what happens 2 months ago.

Daigo is a a cellist in a premiere symphony orchestra in Tokyo. He is thinking if he should get his webpage designer wife, Mika(Ryoko Hirosue) to promote it as the business is poor when it disbands. He loses his job and owes people a lot of money. Mika is shocked by the amount and also his decision that he must move back to his hometown. Still, she supports it.

Suffering from an innate sense that he is a mediocre musician, he faces up to the fact that not everyone who has devoted their life to music can become a top artist. She accepts an octopus from a neighbour but is dismayed to find it still alive. They throw back into the river but discover it dead. He sells his cello away and both moves back to his home town in Yamagata. They move into the crumbling remains of his mother’s house, which doubled as the local pub. He finds that his mother still keeps his cello.
He sees an advertisement which states that he will be well paid if taking it up. He has thought of it to be a tour agency and goes for the interview.

He arrives for the interview, curiously eyeing the coffins lining the back wall of the office. Yukiko Kamimura (Kimiko Yo) greets him there. Seeing her having difficulties with the coffins cleaning, he helps her to adjust the lids.
The company owner, Sasaki, hires him on the spot, with only a cursory glance at his resume. Daigo finally ventures to ask what is involved, exactly, and is stunned to learn what he has gotten himself into: the ceremonial “encoffination” of corpses prior to cremation. Departures, which turns out to be misspelled, is supposed to say the departed, the job pertains to dressing, washing, and putting makeup on the deceased before the funeral.

Yukiko wonders why Daigo is so ignorant. He has a very vague memory on funerals. His grandparents died when he was young. His mother passed away when he was abroad. Yukiko then asked about his father. Daigo’s face changes – he has not met him for 30 years.

Sasaki urges him to take the job, proffering large amounts of cash. He’s getting older, and needs someone to carry on the tradition. It is a job that most people look down upon because you earn money when someone dies. He is hesitant for a while but later takes it. However, he doesn’t know how to put it to Mika, who works from home. When he answers that they deal with ceremonies, she thinks that it is related to weddings and he can put his cello playing skills to good use.

For his first day at work, he is in a DVD explaining the procedure of encoffinment, and being made to perform the deceased. Have a good laugh when Daigo keeps breathing and Sasaki keeps causing pain to him as he touches his whole body – that includes leaving a cut on his cheek by the shaving knife. Sasaki read the lines from a script and also makes sure that the dvd only circulates among the people in their profession. When Daigo returns home with a plaster, he claims to Mika that his boss wants him to shave although she knows that he often uses an auto shaver.

For his first hallowing assignment, he has to clean, dress and apply cosmetics to the body of an aged lady who has died alone at home remaining undiscovered for two weeks. The food in the apartment is rotten and he also steps on it.

The stench of the corpse causes him to vomit. Sasaki also pities him as no one is as unlucky as him for the first time. This also leaves a smell on him so he goes to the public bath owned by Tsuyako (Kazuko Yoshiyuki). He meets his childhood friend, Yamashita (Tetta Sugimoto), who becomes a civil servant. He has wished that his mother will quit and sell the public bath to retire but she insists of keeping it because of the villagers.

Daigo returns home, feeling even more sick when seeing the chicken on the table. The head is shown among the other parts. So desperate he becomes that he fondles Mika right in the kitchen! Is this retribution for him for not being with his mother before her death?

The next day, he calms his nerves by playing the cello at home. That also triggers his memory of his happy family together at the beach before his father runs away with another woman when he was six.

Since then, he is quite bitter over it as he can no longer remember his face. Mika is sure that his mother still loves his father. If not, why has she been keeping the records for so long? One record even has the music that Daigo often plays. Daigo’s parents have pinned hopes on him to play the cello when he is young.

As this job affects his personal life, he starts to ponder if he is the right man for the job. He looks at the salmon fish in the river, curious to know why they return. The old man he befriends at the bath, Shokichi(Takashi Sasano) tells him that the fish return to die after giving birth to their offspring. He sits by the side of the river, pondering till Sasaki arrives – they have another assignment.

The owner blames them for coming late. After the ceremony, Sasaki requests for a lipstick and gets it from the daughter. The owner becomes calm now – he even thanks the two for making his wife beautiful. He has never seen here like that before. At first, Daigo does not like his job but little by little he comes to a new understanding of it. He even goes to a hotel late at night when a person hangs himself.

Even the police is impressed with his technique. The hands which are used to play the cello work miracles. He asks Yukiko why she chooses this job. She replies that she is touched by his delicate way of doing work so she works for him. Also, she hopes that she will have the honour of getting him to be in charge of her funeral in future.

Daigo brings Mika to the public bath. The bath house owner pities Daigo for being alone in the past and requests Mika not to leave him. He doesn’t shed a tear in front of his mother after his father’s leaving. But he often sobs in the bath. She should treasure him as he is a good man. The two return home to drink wine and have a romantic moment.

Daigo meets Yamashita’s family and he is hostile to him although his family is not. Yamashita asks him to get a decent job as tongues start wagging. Daigo returns home and is dismayed that Mika has watched the dvd. Mika confesses that she nearly has a nervous breakdown when they move here. Despite of this, she obeys him as she loves him. When he attempts to touch her hand, she yells that she can’t be with him anymore since his hands are dirty and not cleansed. She leaves him and returns to her mother.

Daigo is upset that his wife and friends universally despise his new line of work, he takes a great amount of pride in the fact that he is helping to ensure that the dead receive a proper send-off from this state of being. He does think of quitting and Yukiko finds it a pity. Sasaki must have found him a talent to accept him immediately. If he wants to resign, he has to tell him about that himself.

Sasaki is BBQ something in his room and invites Daigo to join him. Daigo notices Sasaki’s wife photo. Both men eat anything which is raw. Sasaki makes his wife his first client when she passes away 9 years ago to start the business. Sasaki is comically matter-of-fact but firm in his directives and the contention that they are providing an important service to their community. True to Sasaki’s expectations, Daigo develops a deep respect for life in all its variations, and a profound empathy for people trying to make peace with the finality of death.

So it continues to the part on the preparing the girlish youngster for the trip to his afterlife. His father bursts into tears that he will forever remember him as his son. Daigo continues playing his cello as his pastime. The next moment has the three eating fried chicken. Daigo has overcome his fear and is eating normally. He also plays the cello for them.

In the meantime, he handles many other cases. Some cases are markedly traditional, featuring beatific family members in time-honored transition. Others highlight family dramas fraught with inevitable collisions, eased into unexpected conclusion. A grandmother’s granddaughter requests to put on socks for her. A family who loses the only man has the female members kissing him, leaving lipsticks on his face. A young boy whose coffin is laid in church. All sessions are conducted regardless of religion. But there is one that leaves the most impact on him.

A mother yells that her daughter’s hair colour is wrong. Her husband quarrels with her boyfriend who causes death through motorcycling. The girl’s uncle gets impatient - who wants to take up the job that no one wants?! Daigo seems no longer being the assistant as he can manage everything on his own. Mika suddenly returns to Daigo, pregnant. She asks him if he will find another source of income. If not, how are both going to answer to their child?

He gets a call. The bath house owner passes away. She falls to her death while taking a bucket of water. Daigo handles this and notices the scarf that she often wears around the neck by her side. He ties it on her neck. He gets her family members to use a towel to clean her face. Her whole family bursts into tears. So is Mika who also has tears in her eyes. She no longer objects to his job.

All attend her funeral and Daigo realizes that Shokichi actually works in the crematorium. Last year, the elderly celebrated Christmas together. She even gets him to set the fire at her public bath. Now he knows why – he is the best person to set fires. Yamashita bursts into tears when seeing how Shoichi presses the button to burn the coffin. Daigo also feels sad over this.

Daigo plays the cello music to his unborn baby. Daigo talks about his father giving him a big stone when younger. He keeps it with his first cello. He has given his father a small white stone in return. Although his father has promised to give him a different stone yearly, this is the only thing he has gotten so far. Then one day, a telegram is delivered to Daigo's mother, informing them of the death of Daigo's estranged father. He is later taken aback to learn about it.

Yukiko left her son in her hometown when he was only 6. He has held her hand but she still leaves the town till now. Now she does not dare to return. However, she hopes that he will see him for the last time. Daigo snaps that irresponsible parents are far too much. Sasaki is indifferent to their exchange, to continue reading his newspapers.

Daigo doesn’t listen to her and walks out to ignore Mika when she comes to him. But later, he returns to asks Sasaki for the car keys. Sasaki provides Daigo’s father a coffin. Daigo discovers that he is still single till now, leading a lonely life till his death. He is displeased to see how shabbily other undertakers treat his father after his death. He shoves them aside and does on his own. He shaves for him and is moved to tears upon discovering the small stone in his hand.

Suddenly, the image of his face becomes clear in his mind as he finally calls him father. Mika passes the small stone to him but he presses the stone against her stomach, indicating that he will pass it to the child when he is born.

Interesting facts

It won 10 Japan academy prize awards – best picture, director, screenplay, actor, supporting actor, supporting actress, cinematography, lighting and sound recording. It was also the winner of Palm Springs international film festival and Montreal World film festival. It also snatched best film, best director, best screenplay, best actor awards at Kinema Junpo Awards.

Masahiro Motori reminds all about Gatsby commercials. And yes, he was the model who was absolutely hilarious. Who will expect him to look so serious in here? He has completely shed his heart-throb image to prove himself to be a versatile actor. Inspired by Japanese author Shinmon Aoki's mortician memoir 10 years ago, he gets attracted by the profession and suggested it to the director.

I watched it with my friend and we wept while watching. The part on Tsuyako’s death reminded me of my grandmother and the part on Daigo handling his father’s death moved me to tears.

The film was ten years in the making. Motoki studied the art of encoffinment from a mortician, and also how to play a cello. The director attended funeral ceremonies in order to understand the feelings of bereaved families. While death is the subject of great ceremony, it is also associated with great taboo in Japan, so the director was worried about the film's reception and did not anticipate commercial success.

He and the whole cast went to Hollywood. Ryoko walked very quickly on the red carpet as she wasn’t confident of winning but the unexpected win delighted the whole team. The movie also won China’s Golden Rooster award – best picture, director and actor.

Motori also clinched a best actor award at Asian Films Awards in 2009. He was so happy that he nearly fainted and his throat was dry as he never thought he could win. The story was on accepting death, letting go and hopes after death. It moved him to tears as he was finally recognised for his hard work and most importantly, many liked the story.


It is not just Daigo who gradually gains a greater appreciation for life. I believe anyone who watches the movie will learn about it. It teaches us to treasure our loved ones before the day comes. The process of prepping the corpse is shown in detail. I marvel at how it is performed in front of family members in different stages of grief. The ritual also involves washing and dressing the body. The challenge is to do it while exposing a minimum of skin. It is an incredible ceremony to witness.

It makes us respect the casket profession. The directors did an amazing job glorifying and making known this profession. It can also be enlightening & heartwarming. This movie can touch you in so many ways that you can imagine, relationship between husband and wife, family, colleagues and the living and the dead. Especially if you have loved ones that has passed away.

Daigo has to play many tasks here - as an encoffineer, as a husband, as a son and as a human being. It is Daigo’s turn to deal with life and death among the people who are dearest to him. Ryoko Hirosue improves in her acting but isn’t her improvement isn’t as advanced as Motori. He was the star – the main attraction in the movie. I was quite impressed with the way he acted in ‘Style!’and appreciate him even more here.

This movie has a story of love and discovery. "Departures" will linger in your heart and mind long after viewing. It is definitely Oscar worthy. It is one of the most must- watch movies of the year.

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