The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

March 5, 2010

Lisa Brown: Film about dealing with death full of life

Now that we’re inching our way out of winter, are you in the mood for a feel-good movie about life, death, and relationships? If so, “Departures” might be for you. This sweet, meditative movie, the 2009 winner of an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, will have you smiling through your tears.

Early in the story, musician Daigo Kobayashi realizes that he’s a man of big dreams but modest talent. In quick order, he loses his orchestra job, sells his cello and moves back to his hometown.

He’s looking for a change — and employment. He finds both when an ad entitled “working with departures” piques his interest.

He’s surprised when he’s offered the job during the interview. He’s even more surprised when he learns that he’ll be working as an encoffiner, someone who prepares a body for burial or cremation.

His new boss explains that the ad had a typo; it should have read “the departed” instead of “departures.”

Daigo accepts the position but hides its true nature from his wife and friends, fearing their disgust. As he becomes more familiar with the job, however, he begins to appreciate its beauty and necessity. He and his boss provide a service that benefits the families as well as the deceased.

“The rite of encoffinment is to prepare the deceased for a peaceful departure,” Daigo tells a grieving family. They are invited to watch as he gently and respectfully positions the body, cleans it, and dresses it. There is profound sadness on their faces, but also fascination; they find comfort in the ritual.

He takes pride in what he does and realizes he’s good at it. When his wife discovers his secret and tells him to get a “normal” job, he replies, “Normal? Everyone dies. I’ll die, and so will you. Death is normal.”

Daigo’s close proximity to death and the family dramas that result from it — parents blame each other for a child’s untimely death, relatives debate whether a cross-dresser should be presented as a male or a female — set him on a journey to reconnecting with his past.

Key to that journey is his rediscovery of a rock wrapped in sheet music. Daigo later explains the significance of giving someone a rock.

It’s a “stone letter,” he tells his wife. “Long ago, before writing, you’d send someone a stone that suited the way you were feeling. From its weight and touch, they’d know how you felt.”

Toward the end of the movie, Daigo’s past returns in a major way, and he performs the encoffining ritual for someone he hasn’t seen in many years. As he prepares the body, past and present meet, and a fuzzy, forgotten face comes back into focus. The moment is powerful and moving.

“Departures” is a meditation on life and death, but it’s far from sorrowful. There is plenty of laughter.

Daigo’s first day on the job is filled with indignity; let’s just say there’s a giant diaper involved. His extreme reaction when encountering his first corpse — that of a woman who’s been dead for two weeks — is hilarious but wholly understandable. And during his first solo run as an encoffiner, he makes a startling discovery while bathing the body.

It’s easy to see why this movie won an Academy Award. From the ballet of the encoffining ritual to the majestic landscape of northern Japan, it’s lovely to look at. The music is beautiful, too, and will linger in your mind.

But it is ultimately the story at the heart of “Departures” that makes it great. It doesn’t rely on 3-D technology, billion-dollar special effects or cameo appearances by a dozen Hollywood stars. It is simple and universal, and it sneaks up on you, packing an emotional wallop that you might not expect.

Not enough films do that these days.

Lisa E. Brown is the Administrative Assistant of the Joplin Public Library.