Plot summary (with possible spoilers): Daigo Kobayashi (played by Masahiro Motoki) is a professional cellist with a struggling Tokyo orchestra. When the orchestra disbands because of lack of funds, Daigo and wife Mika (Ryoko Hirosue) decide to move back to his old home town of Sagata, where they can take up residence in the old coffee shop/house that Daigo’s mother used to run.
Daigo’s immediate concern is to find a job. The next morning he sees an ad in the paper for an NK agent to handle “departures”, and, thinking the position might have something to do with travel, he goes in for an interview. The boss, Ikuei Sasaki, asks Daigo a few basic questions, looks him over, and decides he will be perfect for the job. He pays 500,000 yen per month (roughly $5,000) and gives Daigo 20,000 yen in cash (about $200) right there at the interview. Daigo is puzzled, but accepts.
Soon Daigo discovers that the job has nothing to do with travel after all. Instead, he is to be a “nokan” specialist, someone who performs a ritual cleansing ceremony to prepare dead bodies for the coffin prior to cremation. This was not at all what Daigo had in mind, but the shacho convinces him to give it a try for a little while, claiming that Daigo is a “natural”. Daigo reluctantly agrees.
Things go along relatively well until Mika discovers the true nature of Daigo’s job. She is horrified, because working with dead bodies is considered “unclean” in Japan. She demands that Daigo quit, and when he refuses, she leaves him. Eventually, though, she returns, announcing that they will soon be parents. Once again she exhorts Daigo to quit, saying that their child will be teased mercilessly once others find out about Daigo’s occupation. But after she sees Daigo in action, she changes her mind.
The film ends with Daigo performing the cleansing ceremony on his father, who had abandoned the family when Daigo was just six years old. Previously, Daigo resented the man and couldn’t even remember his face very clearly. But after seeing how his father died alone, while clutching a souvenir from Daigo’s childhood, he can finally put the past behind him and move on.
- The boss was the most interesting character in the film. He took everything as it came, rolled with the punches, and knew Daigo better than Daigo knew himself. He seemed like he had some great stories to tell. Too bad the filmmakers didn’t let us get to know him a bit more.
- The cleansing ceremony seemed quite peaceful and beautiful. I’d never seen anything like that before, and was very interested whenever they showed one in the movie.
- The last 40 minutes of the film were wonderful. Yes, the ending was extremely sappy and viewers were shamelessly manipulated with that “stone letter” thing, but it somehow still worked.
- I thought the actor who played Daigo was just terrible! I couldn’t stand looking at this guy because he only had two facial expressions: completely dumbfounded and sad-sack mopey. He was so annoying!!! I wanted to scream at him to buck up and be a man, for god’s sake. Ugh! It took me several days to get through the first hour+ of this movie because I got sick of watching Daigo.
- I hate seeing people vomit in real life or on screen, so the couple of scenes where Daigo did this had me scrambling for the remote control so I could hit “Skip”. Nasty!
- This film took way too long to unfold. As I mentioned, things didn’t start to get really good until the last 30-40 minutes. I wasn’t expecting shoot ‘em up action or anything, but man, it was tough to slog through the beginning. The ending was worth it, but this is NOT the kind of movie I could ever watch twice.
Overall, I have to admit that I was rather disappointed by Departures (Okuribito). After the Oscar win for Best Foreign Film, this movie received a lot of hype, but I didn’t think it was that great. Then again, I rarely like Japanese films (other than Miyazaki) so maybe it’s a cultural thing. I give this one 3 stars out of 5.