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Daigo Kobayashi is a devoted cellist in an orchestra that has just been dissolved and now finds himself without a job. Daigo decides to move back to his old hometown with his wife to look for work and start over. He answers a classified ad entitled "Departures" thinking it is an advertisement for a travel agency only to discover that the job is actually for a "Nokanshi" or "encoffineer," a funeral professional who prepares deceased bodies for burial and entry into the next life. While his wife and others despise the job, Daigo takes a certain pride in his work and begins to perfect the art of "Nokanshi," acting as a gentle gatekeeper between life and death, between the departed and the family of the departed. The film follows his profound and sometimes comical journey with death as he uncovers the wonder, joy and meaning of life and living. Written by
Fixating itself on the pretext of death as a strong stigma to the Japanese rather than on the necrophiliac titillation possessed by those outside this particular societal circle, "Departures" approaches this issue with credible poignancy made more relevant when seen as a mitigation by director Yojiro Takita and screenwriter Kundo Koyama to a prevailing Eastern taboo. Although slightly undercut by an ultimately predictable script, Japan's Oscar-winning entry for this year's foreign-language film category is thoughtfully expressive, portraying a morbidly incriminating profession with dignified grace.
Daigo (Masahiro Motoki) is a cellist for a symphony orchestra which disbands after a performance for failing to gather audiences. Having no job, he and his wife Mika (Ryoko Hirosue) move to his hometown in his deceased mother's house where, upon answering a help-wanted ad he mistakes for a travel agency, he ends up as "encoffiner"-in-training, helping his boss Sasaki (Tsutomu Yamazaki) perform a set of ceremonial rites for the dead before cremation. Aware of the social demonizing of such job, he lies to his wife about it until she learns of it anyway and pleads that he finds a "normal job," an appeal he finds tough when he increasingly develops a meticulous fondness for his work.
Takita's charming and ultimately touching apologetic on mortality charts the disorderliness arising from an individual's social circle while he pursues his sense of purpose, with the titular itinerary suggesting more than the moribund ritual the film's protagonist is subjected to. Thus, it also becomes a plaintive meditation on Daigo's spiritual and moral development as he attends to the various abandonment issues that haunt him (a father who ran off when he was young and a wife that stigmatizes him for his newly found "filthy" career). Ultimately, "Departures" is as much a story of atonement as it is about dealing with mortality; that in order to fully embrace one's existence, it is necessary to cope with death -- both literally and figuratively -- while nurturing the bonds that exist among those who still live.
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