Japanese film evokes mixed emotions

The movies’ title, Departures, doesn’t represent takeoffs or a brand new start, but for ever-lasting separation and the ritual to send away our loved ones. The Japanese movie, Departures, starring Masahiro Motoki, Ryoko Hirosue, Tsutomu Yamazaki, and directed by Yojiro Takita, focuses on a unique topic in Japanese culture: death. This film demonstrates the contradictory charm of the Japanese community—with its ever present conservatism and stark, unorthodox ways of thinking. Among those amazing thinkers and doers are manga artist Hayao Miyazaki and author Haruki Murakami. With those sharp insights, traditional Japanese country life, and classic western music mix in a single film work, no one can resist the charm of this movie. Even those who can not appreciate motion pictures will fall in love with this form of art, which is far more than simple pictures and words.

Written by Shinmon Aoki, Departures is 130 minutes long and features a moving soundtrack, which is definitely one of its most significant elements in the whole work. It depicts a cellist, Daigo, confronting the disbanding of his stagnant orchestra and unaffordable debt due to his newly bought cello. He falls into financial crisis alongside his wife, Mika. As an artist passionate for the cello, he has to give it up and decides to escape from the occupied and breathless metropolis, Tokyo, to his remote hometown. He happens to find an ad in a newspaper, which later surprisingly turns out to belong to a mortuary. Out of ideas, and urgently needing money compensation for his wife’s company, he reluctantly takes the job. From there, he starts his journey of discovering the profound meaning of life and death. As time goes by, the previously disgusting and indecent job brings more and more meaning to his once quiet and young life. Combining his broken family background, warmth brought by the owner of a local bath house, and memories of his childhood, Daigo realizes that even after losing lives, people will still go back to where they were born.

Before I watched the movie, everyone who had already watched it spoke highly of it, which heightened my expectations. As a result, I was a little disappointed after watching. Objectively speaking, it should be counted as a good movie, with meaningful and profound story, favorable background setting, and a relatively logical structure. However, I don’t feel the direction of the movie deserves so many good reviews and commanding words since it does not match the excellence of the story. So I would like to lower reader’s expectations for this movie in hopes of true appreciation of the story itself the abundant meanings behind it, and your feelings aroused by the plot.

Moving past its shining story and music composed by Joe Hisaishi, Departures greatly suffers from its dissatisfying cinematography. Typically in movies, directors arrange lighting and cameras to provoke a certain feeling they want for the audience, or to strengthen the emotion included in actors’ and actresses’ performances. In this movie, numerous angles of the shot made no sense at all. Instead, some uncomfortable shots pull the audience out of the story. The high-angle shot used in the scene where Daigo played his cello in an old house left an especially deep impression; not positively, but negatively. This ridiculous angle completely ruined my peaceful recollection. Usually, high-angle shots are used when people talk to each other in positions of different heights. It is true that if used in the right way, this type of shot also displays the objectives’ powerlessness. Unfortunately, the position of the camera and lighting in that scene only brings me the feeling of a horror movie instead of the peaceful, yearning atmosphere of a drama with beautiful cello songs.

Also, I personally have no preference for the director’s use of film editing. I don’t think this is due to underdeveloped techniques because of the film’s age (released in 2008), as I find many other movies as old as those in 1980s pretty absorbing, given their simple but logical and capturing editing.

Still, I have some favorite shots in the movie. I like most shots in the mortuary, especially the three-minute scene of a meal on the top floor in the company. Even though the depth of the scene was not consistent with my assumption, the influence of Japanese culture took over my heart at that moment. I really like the sense that a small attic full of plants and a pure focus on food brings me. Even if there is no complicated editing or superior technique of shooting in that three minute scene, simple dialogue and perfect lighting that softens the whole picture create a natural flow of emotion. The scenes in that little local bathhouse, similarly, give the mood of warm steam and relaxation from the bottom of the heart.

Personally, I chose this movie to review for two reasons. First, I am always waiting for an excuse to escape from school work and watch a movie. Second, I heard from my father who stayed in Japan for six years that encoffining is one of the most inferior jobs in Japan. During his time, lots of international students from China would carry dead bodies to earn a living. I feel it is extremely ridiculous for a country that pays the dead impeccable respect to look down upon people who help to send the dead away. The movie entails a number of social problems, from criticizing the bustling city life to concerns about the marginalized groups in the society. Audiences can easily detect them if they concentrate enough. Another attribute of the movie is its overabundance of content, which makes it extremely hard to put plots into clear logic lines. Some may like this feeling, since the film offers several separated brief stories for audience to discover, discuss, and think about. Others may dislike this way of presenting and hope for a logical way of depiction and a selection of one single topic. However, true life can never be simple. Such sophistication of life and community demands strong ability from the directors to show multiple aspects simultaneously, which explains why truly good movies are so scarce.

Departures is the life story of a young man, which offers audiences more insight into death, self-esteem, and countless other topics. Feelings and opinions derived from movies can vary from person to person, with the only common opinion being complete enjoyment and absorption of the film. In the end, I think Departures is a movie far beyond 130 minutes.