Japan’s infamous stigma toward death and dying has typically been perceived as a metaphysical flaw by the Kübler-Ross empowered West; ensconced in our borderline-necrophiliac culture we can wryly erect a pair of chopsticks in a bowl of rice and devilishly describe their significance to squeamish dinner guests while haughtily wondering what all the fuss is about. That this xenophobic ignorance inflicts even cineastes with an appetite for Asian art-house imports is a telling testament to the uneasiness surrounding these topics in that global corner. Even Ikiru, arguably the most internationally lauded Japanese film to fixate upon mortality, swaddles its potentially improper subject matter in humanist ideals; its very title, roughly translated as “to live,” aptly emblemizes the manner in which Akira Kurosawa meant partly to meditate on the concept of will, using the imminent finality of physical life as a mere launching pad.
Departures possesses similarly universal themes (to its detriment, since it forgoes the subtext of social skepticism that became Kurosawa’s trademark), but it feels like a singularly great film when one understands its plot as a daringly paradoxical apologia for Japan’s moribund taboo. Daigo (Masahiro Motoki), the narrator and main character, is an encoffiner-in-training, a man who performs a curious combination of funeral rites and embalming procedures on the freshly deceased (as his employer’s stereotypically sardonic secretary says, it’s an “ultra-niche” service). His attitude toward the work initially mirrors that of most Asian audiences who view the denizens of such unsavory industries as pariahs: He’s disgusted and intimidated, though eventually he swallows his pride and prejudice for financial reasons. This detailed knee-jerk reaction—and that of other characters in the story that inevitably uncover his dirty little secret in spite of strenuous and comical dissembling—feels not only like an ironic examination of vestigial discrimination, but an unprecedented attempt at crucially corrective discourse between Japan and occidental society.
Director Yojiro Takita and writer Kundo Koyama insist that it’s not the act of dying itself that their homeland demonizes, but the archetypal uncleanliness of corpses, which monumentally violate the sanitary demands of Shinto. Indeed, the rigidity of the common-knowledge chopstick posture is as much a totem of rigor mortis as it is a phallic reminder, and who’d want either in their dinner? In a rhetorically deft move, however, Departures never once connects these cultural phenomena to their ecclesiastical roots, instead allowing viewers’ natural repulsion toward the subject matter to slowly soften at the edges as they observe how the tactile nuances of handling and dressing cadavers help to focus Daigo’s addled maturation.
In fact, communication by touch is perversely the film’s most effective reoccurring image, considering that the dead receive the most fondling. We learn that prior to his current apprenticeship, Daigo was a failed cellist, and the camera poetically capitalizes on this irrelevant backstory to emphasize the character’s dexterous hands: as they grip the crinkly palms of his senescent superior, a morbidly wise professional whose first client was his departed wife; as they erotically claw at the gangly limbs and concave mid-drift of his devoted but traditionally-minded spouse; and as they daub with cloth and cocoon in silk his customers’ pale loved ones. The film maintains this aura of brocaded beauty even while unflinchingly imparting the trade’s least ceremonial aspects, such as the practice of stuffing a corpse’s anus with cotton to prevent leakage (hilariously illustrated on Daigo himself for the purpose of creating an instructional video) or the necessity of cleaning a maggot-ridden, two-week-old carcass for its rites (though this scene flat-lines, playing like the misfired black humor of Sunshine Cleaning).
The creamily bildungsroman journey of the movie’s protagonist, who retreats to his rural hometown with daddy-abandonment issues in tow at the story’s start, curdles by the third-act filial-angst exorcism, but Takita’s observant if occasionally restless camera entertainingly toys with traditional death motifs, continually enchanting the underwritten narrative. The pallid parade of bodies that Daigo painstakingly enlivens with caresses of lipstick and rouge trump all other paltry attempts at cinematographic prettiness, and every other noteworthy image seems like a metaphor for encoffinment: Even the ubiquity of honey-toned kerosene lamps foreshadow the decimating glow of the cremation chamber. Coating the somber practice in a pulchritudinous sheen somewhat dangerously enforces the biologically erroneous, Pre-Raphaelite tendency of corpse worship (there’s that necrophilia again), realized most bluntly in the film by a client who admits to Daigo that his wife never looked as lovely as she did in her casket. But where the school of Rossetti isolated the post-mortem female for supernal titillation, Takita fashions it as an eye-pleasing receptacle for the unimaginable grief and frustration of survivors; we wonder if the empty shell of a departed woman is perhaps even more immediately valuable than the soul that vacated it.
Departures remarkably succeeds as both a social explanation, if not quite a defense, of Japan’s own untouchable caste and a dramatized criticism directed toward those that would sooner sever ties with their own blood than break bread with undertakers. Furthermore, the resonance of this dual-pronged vocational tolerance fable only intensifies when we consider the international success of the movie in spite of Takita’s tainted history. That a golden idol from America’s film Academy adorns the shelf of a director whose résumé includes a pornographic cycle entitled Molester Train is the most giggle-inducing manifestation of cross-cultural irony (not to mention hypocrisy) imaginable.