Departures: dignity and the Japanese mask

Unemployed and broke when his orchestra is suddenly disbanded, a former cellist find himself taking up an unusual job that changes his life, teaching both him and the viewer about how life can be lived.

A surprise win in the Foreign Film category at last year’s Academy Awards, Departures (おくりびと) introduces us to a little known ceremony performed by encoffiners (納棺師), the people who are responsible for preparing the deceased for their final rest. Death is a subject that is typically avoided in most societies today, and Kobayashi Daigo finds himself unable to tell his wife or friends of his new job. However, as he follows his eccentric boss around, witnessing the grace and beauty of the ceremony and encountering the many people affected by death, Daigo grows to appreciate life and realises that he has found what he was meant to do.

Departures really is an exceedingly well thought-out film. Highly aware of the discomfort that the audience will likely feel, the filmmakers injected large doses of humour at the start, enabling us to laugh about it and opening us to the broader messages that they wished to convey. We laughed at Daigo and cringed at some of the harrowing early experiences he had. And as we encounter the same families he does, we learned that it is never too late for those who are left behind to learn from the example of those who are departed. Life can be short or long, easy or difficult, but if both humour and dignity can be found in death, than both can also be found in life.

For me, Departures was also a quiet commentary on how important every single role in society is. There are many jobs which people may not want to do, from encoffining to mundane or dirty jobs like laundry to cleaning the streets. However, if they are not carried out, then society as a whole may eventually degenerate, both physically and morally. Just as Daigo found dignity and beauty in his new job, we should find the same characteristics in our own tasks, and complete them to the best of our ability. In doing so, we will eventually be able to take pride in our tasks, in providing for others, just as the old lady running the bath house was able to do.

In a society where most people avoid death, preferring not to touch upon it or even associate with those who work with it, Departures demonstrates that death as an important part of the journey called life. The significance of a death lies not so much with the person who has passed on, but rather on the effect that it has on those left behind: it is only by accepting death that we might be able to fully appreciate what it means to live, and thus live with the dignity and love befitting of life itself.

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There is one other thing that struck me about Departures, something that left me reflecting on one of the most disconcerting experiences that foreigners can encounter in Japan. When Mika found out about the nature of Daigo’s work, she broke down and revealed that the happy face, the one she’d put on when he proposed returning to his hometown and quite possibly put on again several times over the ensuing months, was just a mask. That she was worried and unhappy leaving about leaving their life in the city, leaving her own job, about the gossip surrounding her husband’s work. Most people may put it down to the subservience of the ideal Yamato Nadeshiko, the perfect Japanese wife whose virtues “include loyalty, domestic ability, wisdom and humility”, the all important symbol of a dignified life.

To me however, Mika’s mask speaks more of the Japanese tendency to hide what they truly think behind a smile*. People just passing through might just accept it at face value, but for those of us living amongst the Japanese, trying to understand what they really meant is a daily challenge. Whilst the language barrier may be the biggest wall at the start, I can assure you that the cultural wall is far more difficult to scale. Even now, although I’ve left, I still wonder if I ask for too much when I have to contact ex-colleagues/seniors in Japan for references and other favours. Unless you’re CKY, such fears will usually be unfounded, but it’s something you can never truly know with all certainty.

But is this necessarily a negative thing? I can’t speak for anyone else (and I suspect that most young Japanese people at least, don’t approach this as I do), but I think it makes me a bit more considerate in my actions and words. Besides trying to anticipate what others might appreciate, I also try to be careful not to say things that will hurt them. However, I am most definitely nowhere close to a Yamato Nadeshiko – being by nature quite honest and straightforward, someone who will usually inform someone outright if something they are trying to do is possible or not. I can take it too far: if someone’s words, actions or personality clashes with mine, they will know it. However, I truly believe that the Japanese should learn to be more honest, so that more people may recognise anything they need to change about themselves and the world around them. But that’s a tangent for another day.

(*Up until the 1980s, the “3S’s” were commonly used to describe the Japanese people. What do they stand for? Sleep, smile and silence. (source))

Further reading:
Madman presents DEPARTURES
The history of encoffination (Japanese)

(The Japanese blogger notes that Departures is often compared to a 1984 film by Itami Juzo (伊丹十三): 「お葬式」 or The Funeral, which depicts one family seeing off their patriarch. Like Departures, it was very well received, and possibly the film to see if you want to find out more about this area of Japanese life.)

About karice
MAG fan, freelance translator and political scientist-in-training. I also love musicals, travel and figure skating!

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