Film Review – ‘Departures’ an exploration of finding hope in times of grief

I have just watched an extraordinary film. Moving, beautiful and life-affirming; at one moment hilariously funny and at the next acutely uncomfortable: extraordinary is the only word that will cover it.

Departures is a Japanese film directed by Yojiro Takhita, an Oscar bid in 2008. It tells the story of a young man who looses his job as an orchestra cellist and returns to his home town with his young wife. He is desperate for work of any kind and replies to an advert that sounds like a travel agency. He is hired before he realises that dealing with ‘departures’ actually means dealing with the ‘departed’. Taken on as an apprentice in ‘casketing’ he is taught how to prepare bodies for their cremation, but not in some back room of a funeral parlour rather through an intensely moving ritual performed in front of the grieving relatives in which the body of their loved one is washed and dressed with the utmost tenderness and respect, before being laid into the casket.

Daigo is initially appalled by the idea of handling dead bodies (his wife even more so) but he comes to realise the healing power of this simple but profound ritual in the lives of those who call for his services. The biggest surprise of all is the healing power it has in his own life…

Given that it had almost as many corpses as characters and a huge cast of grieving, angry, distressed, hysterical relatives, it neither descended into despair nor gave way to ‘schmaltzy’ sentimentality. Yes, you probably will cry, but those tears will not have been manipulated out of you by cinematic contrivance. Instead, like a deeply vibrating note from Daigo’s cello (the music is beautiful), the film simply portrays some of life’s bleakest moments and your own memories and emotions cannot help but resonate. That makes it sound like an experience you’d be unlikely to want to pay for but this is a really great film, I’d encourage you to see it. Especially if, like me, you have any part to play in funerals ( I promise you, taking an Anglican funeral will seem like a walk in the park compared to this!)

If you’ve ever given birth you’ll no doubt remember the intensely intimate and dependant relationship you had with your midwife during labour and being the professional taking a family through a funeral is a similar kind of privelege, only at the other end of life.

Departures turns out not to be a story about loss at all but rather a story about embracing life, something we can only do when we equally embrace our losses and griefs.

I loved it. It’s slow-moving and visually very beautiful (I felt as if I’d visited Japan) and also culturally fascinating. It spoke eloquently about the value and power of ritual to allow us to articulate our grief. No wonder it is the emotionally constrained Japanese who have formulated this extraordinary ceremony.

Why didn’t it depress me? It was a film full of funerals after all. Because, as one of the friends who watched it with me said, ‘it was full of hope’. It wasn’t a neatly articulated hope, succinctly expressed in some slick soundbite: but it was the hope that relationships are more important than achievement, individual lives count and love matters more than anything.

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