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Departures: A Reflection on Life and Death

Shu Hua Li March 8, 2018

Have you considered what kind of job you want to do after you graduate from university? Hopefully the answer is yes. It is very fortunate to be hired in your ideal job. What if you get a job that is quite different from what you imagined?

The movie Departure will tell you the answer.

This Japanese movie was released in 2008, and was rewarded the Best Foreign Language Film Award at the 81st Academy Awards.

The story begins with Daigo Kobayashi, a cellist who loses his job because his orchestra has disbanded. He returns to his hometown, Yamagata, with his wife, Mika, and accidentally starts a new job as a nokanshi–a traditional Japanese ritual mortician. He suffers from the prejudice and ignorance of those around him , including his wife at the beginning, because of the deep-rooted social ideas about nokanshi. He eventually earns respect from people, and comprehends a deeper meaning of life: life does not just mean living simply, but also means learning how to spend time wisely during our short lives.

Becoming a nokanshi is the turning point of Kobayashis life.

At first, Kobayashi actually wants to refuse his job, but he is forced to accept this job anyway. This sense of isolation is increased when he must care for an elderly person who has decayed. He finds it difficult to prepare the corpse properly at first. Not only that, his wife and friends’ judgements have continued to make Kobayashi feel depressed and frustrated. However, Kobayashi is touched by his boss, Sasaki, when he sees how Sasaki changes clothes for the departed and cleans their face and body seriously and respectfully. Over time, Kobayashi becomes comfortable with his job after completing many assignments. Because of this job, Kobayashi has a new perspective on many things, such as life and death. He realizes that death is not the end of life. Death is like a person who has a peaceful rest after he/she finishes a long journey. The body is dead, but he/she is still alive in his/her family’s and friends minds.     

Sasaki once said, “what nokanshi do is the most solemn ritual that the living can do for the departed”. The families of the deceased are very grateful for Kobayashi and offer him their thanks, a bow, or local products. From the viewpoint of others, it is insignificant, but for the families of the deceased and Kobayashi, it is very important.

In a sense, Departures tries to remind people that living meaningfully within our short lives is important. This is reinforced  when Kobayashi is standing on a bridge and he notices two fish keep moving forward against the current. He doesn’t understand why the fish do not follow the flow of water. An old man answers his question: they swim against the current because they want to. Indeed, while life is neither that short nor that long, deciding how to spend our lifetime meaningfully is more important than only staying in one place for our whole life. We should do what we want to do, and not do what we hate to do. It is easy to say, but very hard to perform.

Nokanshi is not a popular job. It is subjected to prejudice from people because of conventional ideas. However, no matter how much prejudice that nokanshi receives from others, they still try to help the deceased leave their best memory for their families and friends.

This job is worthy of respect from everyone.