When one thinks of people like Steve Irwin (“The Croc Hunter“) and Timothy Treadwell (immortalized in Grizzly Man (2005)), it is invariably about the way they died. Some say they saw it coming all the time while some coldly label them romantic fools. But coming to think of it, they perhaps are the happiest kind of people – dying doing what they wanted all their life. And the same goes for the little octopus in Okuribito (2008) that struggles to survive on land and dies serenely when discharged into its habitat. Hijacking the Oscar from strongly tipped films Waltz with Bashir (2008, Golden Globe winner) and The Class (2008, Palm D’Or winner), Departures has attempted to turn the eyes of the world from the age old issue of wars into something perhaps equally alarming.
Kicking off from the buzzing city of Tokyo, the film tells us of Daigo Kobayashi (a very physical, Ben Stiller-ish Masahiro Motoki), a cellist who finds himself out of job, his wife Mika (Ryoko Hirosue) who seems to be tolerant to all his bluffs and goof-ups and their life following their decision to move to the countryside. By twist of fate, Daigo lands up as a mortician and what follows is a series of impressive and often funny encounters that he has in his profession. After the first gruesome “project”, he takes bath vigorously to get rid of the stench having done the same to the deceased! However, he still desires to play the cello at defining moments that either shake him up or have him exhilarated, perhaps the only times he truly feels alive.
Although Departures is not entirely a character-driven film, the people in the film exist not because they are entities that shape the plot but because they signify something that is not forced upon them. Director Takita neither shapes his characters to conform to the mechanics of a plot nor does he let them take over the unraveling of the film. He merely chooses or avoids them. He reveals them to highlight disparities, change in attitudes and at times the national mentality. All of them (most importantly) have a past that runs parallel the country’s itself. They all are aware of their destination – both collective and individual. I do hope Mr. Takita makes a film that is set 25 years hence. That would clearly justify the ominous atmosphere that the characters carry with them.
“Death doesn’t mean the end, but leaving the present, heading for the next stage. Truly a gateway” says the old man at the funeral house. “Journeys” they are called. Takita punctuates episodes in the film with shots of landscape in motion – trams, cars, rivers and birds – illustrating the significance of commutations, movements and relocations in our lifetime and beyond. These journeys are initiated by the morticians with a grace and precision comparable to a wedding or religious ceremony. I guess humans have a paradoxical tendency towards death – possessing inherent self-destructive properties to move towards it yet a grotesque desire to reanimate the dead and to infuse life into the non-living. Daigo embellishes the corpses, endowing them with elegance never seen during their living days, which almost consoles one with the fact that they have had such a beautiful death despite their ugly lives. In essence, a death that unites everyone – the expired and the living. Takita presents a number of such references to the living, the dead and the living dead throughout Departures.
Like Scorsese’s comic book wonder Bringing Out The Dead (1999), Okuribito is a film of great ironies – ironies that come packaged with the biggest taboo of them all called Death. A destitute gets all the respect and care he never had when he lived. A misanthrope would be called a gentle giant the minute he stops breathing. Okuribito explores all these weirdly funny facets of life (and its absence) through the prism contemporary Japanese culture and the paradigm shift that it is currently experiencing. Take the hilarious scene where Daigo “discovers” that the dead girl is actually a transvestite. When asked what kind of make-up – men’s or women’s – would the parents like their child to have, they ask Daigo to use the female make-up – which they perhaps would never have allowed their son to use. One excavates a host of such observations and Herzogian contradictions which will only be ruined by verbalization.
I was tempted to compare the film with Ozu’s masterwork Tokyo Story (1953) until I realized how unfair and often foolish this comparison would be. There is nothing Ozuvian about the form that Takita employs (the first few shots of the film would confirm that). The film is as removed from Tokyo Story, albeit the striking similarity of content, as modern Japan is from the culture the west associates it with. Unlike Ozu’s films that suggest a larger youth population, Okuribito provides us with sketches of Yamagata that are filled largely with old people and a few “Macdonalized” young ones. Yet, both seem so true to the contemporary state of affairs in the country. This just goes to show how the country itself has transformed through the years and that a comparison of films can be made only from a historical perspective and not a cinematic one.
Japan is standing on the brink of a historical moment now. With a large fraction of its citizens moving out of the income graph and a minuscule youth population struggling to stabilize the pyramid, the country’s economy seems to be in for a major crisis – a crisis that every country has to go through some day. Okuribito’s almost allegorical take on this transmutation of the country’s demography and culture is probably what makes it uniquely Japanese (and perhaps the only reason it is fir for comparison with the “Japanese” Ozu). The film’s excessively melodramatic flavour may turn off purists but why I feel that it succeeds despite (and sometimes because of) its flaws is that Departures plays out as an elegy. A requiem for the death, or rather the departure, of its senior population and the social, cultural and economic norms that are soon to go down with it.