One of the themes that most contemporary focus on is mortality. Filmmakers understand that death is inevitable and is part of human life. For that reason, many of them present mortality in various ways such as through the display of corpses in horror films, death images, and the numerous images walking corpses in zombie films. From these representations, it is clear that death is unpleasant and that it occurs in diverse ways, which is one of the reasons why most of these films chose to approach this issue in many ways. Although this is the case, very few films have dealt with mortality issue like Yojiro Takita does in the Japanese film, Departures. In this film, Yojiro uses tactics such as mis-en-scene, genre, editing, acting and cinematography to educate people about the roles of Japanese morticians, and the existing prejudices against those who choose such a career.
A Brief Analysis of the Film
The film revolves around the life of Daigo, a mortician who assumed his role after an orchestra that he was part of was disbanded. Having no other job to feed him and his wife, Daigo goes back to his hometown where he finds a job that involves preparing the bodies of the departed. Although this was not the type of job he was hoping for, Daigo takes it and decides to keep it as a secret. His work is difficult at the beginning, but Daigo gradually accepts his job and prepares each body with care and passion. However, after his friends and his wife finds out about his job, they look down upon him. His wife fails to come to the terms that Daigo is a mortician and as a result, she asks him to quit his job, but he refuses. Daigo continues with his work until he finally earns the respect of his wife and others because of his skills, passions and respect for the departed. At the end of the film, Daigo finds himself torn between preparing his father’s body and abandoning him. However, after finding his father with a stone that reminds him of their bond, he forgives his father and prepares chooses to prepare his body.
The Themes of Mortality and Funeral Rituals in the Japanese Society
Like mentioned in the introduction, the main theme presented in this film is the theme of mortality. From the title all the way to the introduction and the scenes in the film, the film maker makes it clear that he is talking about death. However, this is done in two different ways. The first death is symbolic while the other mortality is real. The physical death is represented through the many dead people that Daigo prepares for funeral. The other symbolic death is represented through the rigid culture that exists in almost every society despite the fact that death is natural occurrence.
Death is real, and the film maker makes sure that he emphasizes this fact through various images. However, there are many taboos that surround death, which makes us rejects morticians simply because they are dealing with the dead. Just like the dead characters, ego stiffens those in the society against those that are preparing their beloved people. Other life situations too behave like death because they stiffen people against others. For example, the main character is stiff and emotionless in relation to his father who abandoned him when he was young. It takes another stiff situation, which is death to awake from the emotional death that he had against his father. The same case applies to the society as represented by Daigo’s wife and friends. They are stiff or emotionless when it comes to Daigo just because he has chosen a taboo career. However, it takes Daigo’s wife some moments with Daigo in his preparation of a dead body to wake from her slumber.
Apart from speaking about death, the film also speaks about Japanese funeral rituals. From the film, it is clear that though the Japanese fears death and views it as a taboo, they funeral preparation is highly ritualized, especially in the rural areas. From the film, the deceased’s body is prepared using the help of a professional mortician who prepares the body and dresses it according to the family’s desires. These rituals are well explained by Kim’s research on the same as described in her article, The Purification Process of Death: Mortuary Rites in a Japanese Rural Town. Just like it is illustrated in the film, Kim explains that Japanese death rituals are only performed in the rural areas. She also notes the difference in the rituals based on family, age and other societal factors, which are also observable in Departures. Another observation that correlates with the film is where the funerals take place. Kim mentions that some of the Japanese death rituals take place at the deceased person’s house, which is true since most of Daigo’s rituals are done at the deceased persons’ houses. However, Kim notes that some of the funeral rituals are done in the hospital where death takes place. Just like observed in the film, Kim also notes that a death person is laid on their futon, which is located in a Japanese style room. This can be observed in the film since the dead that Daigo deals with are placed in a futon like area. Other noticeable rituals according to the film and Kim’s research include the use of the traditional haori, or Japanese jacket and the covering of the face and body (Kim 231). Kim continues to note that social stigma is attached to people like Daigo who decide to be funeral professionals.
The Theme of Religion in the Film
Apart from death and funeral rituals, Departures also speaks to viewers about Buddhism and its relation to death and dying. Okuyama explains this in his article, Shinto and Buddhist metaphors in departures where he mentions that though in the film, there are encoded messages associated with Buddhism. For example, the peaceful departure that is emphasized through the rituals is part of Buddhism, which supports a peaceful journey to the other life (Okuyama 14). This view is supported by Asai, Fukuyama and Kobayashi who mention that the film Departures seems to accept the continuity of life and death (Asai, Fukuyama and Kobayashi). In this belief, which religions like Buddhism view as true, the soul and a person’s individuality continues in the next life.
The Use of Film Elements in the Film
To develop all these themes, the film maker uses various film elements like plot, character, genre, mise-en-scene, cinematography, editing, acting among others. As mentioned earlier, Daigo is the main character who follows a plot related to death and funeral rituals in the Japanese culture. other elements like mise-en-scene are also combined with these major elements to develop the main themes. For example, the costumes or the clothes that most of the characters wear during the death rituals are dark. Most of their clothes are black, which is used mostly in funerals to signify death and mourning. For example, in one of the examples provided by the specialists when Diago acts like a dead person, most of the people are in black, including the professional mortician. Diago, who behaves as the dead one is dressed in traditional clothing that are meant for the dead. All through the film, Diago prefers black color, which also helps in adding to the film’s mood and theme. The other film element used is genre as the film falls in the drama category. In this genre, plot is emphasized as one of the ways of appealing the audience, which is the case with Departures. The film maker also uses cinematography to emphasize on the theme and to make viewers focus on the same. For example during the rituals, most of the camera focusses on the deceased through a close up shot, and this can be seen in the same mock ritual done by Diago and the film crew. Long shots are then provided in most these scenes to show things like the room arrangements and the moods of the deceased family members.
Throughout the film, there is also an alternation of different lighting to suit the different needs. In most cases, high key lighting is used to make everything visible. Lastly, the editing, which can be observed through the organization of space through the film helps viewers in focusing on what is important. For example, in one of the scenes where Diago holds his musical instruments, focus is placed on how he opens his musical instruments and how he plays it. Though his musical career is different from his mortician career, the editing focusses on the violin to continue with the theme of death and his role as a mortician.
In conclusion, the film Departures by Yojiro Takita largely deals with theme of death and other sub themes such as religion, and funeral rituals in the Japanese culture. To achieve this, different film elements such as mis-en-scene, editing, genre and editing have been used. The film maker also uses character and plot to speak more about death and the rituals in the Japanese rural cultures.
Asai, Atsushi, Miki Fukuyama, and Yasunori Kobayashi. “Contemporary Japanese view of life and death as depicted in the film Departures (Okuribito).” Medical humanities (2010): jmh-2009.
Departures. Yojiro Takita. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zgrtwio3sjw
Kim, Hyunchul. “The purification process of death: mortuary rites in a Japanese rural town.” Asian ethnology 71.2 (2012): 225.
Okuyama, Yoshiko. “Shinto and Buddhist metaphors in departures.” Journal of Religion & Film 17.1 (2013): 39.