Ittetsu Nemoto, the Rinzai Zen priest at the center of Lana Wilson’s The Departure, is an arresting camera subject. Tall, handsome, yet wounded both figuratively and literally, Nemoto is almost a ghost inside his own home, with full eyes that project the torment that’s also the fount of his carefully honed and guarded empathy. Many scenes show the priest simply regarding his patients. It’s Nemoto’s way of seeing, wedded with his refusal to be shocked by the possibility of death, that’s most beneficial to these people. Nemoto has noodles with a middle-aged father who’s grieving over the loss of his children to divorce, and the priest casually eats his meal while the father tells him of wanting to die. Based on Nemoto’s placid and matter-of-fact demeanor, the man might as well be outlining a plan for running errands.
Living with his wife, Yukiko, young son, Teppei, and mother in a temple in the countryside of Gifu Prefecture in Japan, Nemoto specializes in suicide counseling, running workshops and retreats. (In 2013, he was the subject of a piercing New Yorker profile.) The Departure opens with its most powerful scene, in which Nemoto instructs a group in a dark and quiet temple chamber to write down on slivers of paper the three things they most value in this world. Wilson’s camera captures many of the answers, which are hauntingly simple and indicative of regret and loneliness. “Body, house, food,” one person writes; “the bed my grandfather made,” says another.
Nemoto asks the group to write down things they’d like to try in this life. “Travel the whole world,” one person writes, while another heartbreakingly states: “Love—loving, and being loved.” Each person has eventually written nine ballots containing hopes, names of loved ones, and dreams, and Nemoto asks his group to choose three slips of paper and to throw them away. This request sends a chill through the room, and the priest asks them to throw more ballots away until one remains. Nemoto then says to destroy this symbol of the most valuable facet of these lives as well. And this is what death is, the priest says: a loss of everything. Nemoto doesn’t hector or preach, delivering this moral punchline with a calm sense of inevitability. Afterward, each person in the group lies on the floor with a white cloth over their face, in the manner of a corpse, and their rise from this ritual suggests rebirth.
Nemoto’s conduction of this ceremony is masterful. Suicide can sound tempting for its sense of closure—for the cathartic obliteration it promises, particularly in Japan, which has a famous and troubling history of associating suicide with valor. But people tend to think of death as containing remnants of life, as it’s difficult to conceive of true nothingness and the totality of loss, which is what Nemoto’s ceremony attempts to elucidate. The rebirth ritual is also powerfully effective as it circumvents platitude to give people a primordially physical assertion of there being a second chance for life.
Much of The Departure is devoted to the repetitiveness of Nemoto’s counseling, as the depressed and suicidal sound anonymously similar, wallowing in almost contradictory feelings of heaviness, uselessness, and invisibility. Nemoto is called and texted at all hours of the day, and he’s distracted from his family, evincing his own problematic grasp of priority. Wilson fills in the priest’s backstory, as he’s a reformed misfit from a broken home with a family that’s splotched with suicide. It doesn’t take a psychologist to see that Nemoto’s working through his own issues concurrently with those of his patients, and that he’s attempting to transcend his alienation. Nemoto had an absent and drunk father, and he’s also a heavy drinker who nearly regards the adorable Teppei as a stranger. From stress, smoking, and drinking, Nemoto has considerable heart and artery problems, which suggest a found metaphor for the pain he swallows for his flock.
Wilson films Nemoto with a rapt and poetic sense of worshipfulness, though one sometimes wonders if more scrutiny should’ve been extended to material that’s so fragile and loaded. What relationship does Nemoto’s workshops and case sessions have with Japan’s medical treatment of the depressed and with the country’s culturally nurtured attitudes toward suicide? What are the effects of Nemoto’s treatments on the patients? These questions are broached in Larissa MacFarquhar’s New Yorker article. Wilson also elides ambivalences that might complicate the life-affirming sentimentality of her narrative, such as Nemoto’s disturbing suggestion, to MacFarquhar, that Yukiko might be shallower than him for her contentment.
The Departure also begs for the acknowledgement of Wilson’s presence. How does this film’s making affect the responses of Nemoto and his patients? In a moment of startling meta-textual inquiry, the elderly grandfather of a girl whom the priest is helping is clearly aware of Wilson’s camera, and subsequently veils his suspicion of what he sees as Nemoto’s interference in a private matter. The Departure presents patterns in suicidal people while according them humanity, which isn’t a small accomplishment. But the film could use more scenes that challenge the foundations of its own existence, questioning the power that’s wielded by Wilson, Nemoto, and Japan.