This week, Aaron Kian returned to bring us the first of his two films. I hear it was dubbed by the subtitlophobic Jason Neverkovec as “the best foreign movie I ever saw”, so I guess that’s something!
Before the film, we had the customary short. For this week, Aaron selected a film known to IMDB as The Punisher: Dirty Laundry, though for us he simply referred to it as “Dirty Laundry”, perhaps because the connection with Thomas Jane’s character The Punisher was not revealed until the end of the film when it was first screened at…ComicCon, if I’ve got that right.
The whole thing is a bit over ten minutes and encompasses some extreme cartoonish violence as a laundromat patron (later revealed by a logo – and yes, I had to ask – as The Punisher) loses his cool and takes out a group of street thugs who, frankly, deserve it. It’s remarkable how easy it is to draw up an unsympathetic character if your only goal is to justify killing them off in a violent and satisfying fashion.
Aaron’s feature film Departures, on the other hand, had practically nothing in common with the short at all. While the short was all antagonist and violence driven, the feature had very little plot and no antagonist at all. It was quiet and character-driven and I wouldn’t change a thing.
I hadn’t heard of Japanese director Yôjirô Takita so I browsed through his IMDB entry when Aaron announced the film. Bunch of stuff I hadn’t heard of, bunch of stuff I hadn’t heard of, bunch of stuff that’s not translated…waitaminnit. Did that say “Sexy Timetrip Ninjas”?!? Yes, it turns out that Takita cut his chops in the ’80s making so-called Japanese “pink” films – essentially soft-core, including at least six installments in the “Molester Train”/”Groper Train” series.
I’m happy to announce that he got better.
Departures is not a bit soft core, though it’s not a film you ever expected to see.
The story follows Daigo, a former cellist whose orchestra was dissolved and was thus forced to find some other gainful means of employment. This isn’t really a plot point per se – his former profession could have been anything – though it’s nice that he’s got a bit of the artist in him, as you’ll see. Since there appear to be no further opportunities for a world-class cellist to play cello in Tokyo (really? It’s a kind of big city) Daigo decides the best plan may be to move back to his hometown, where he still owns a small home his mother used to operate a bar out of before her death a few years prior to our story.
Daigo’s wife, who is cute and sweet and so adorable you just wish you were her grandmother so you could get away with grabbing her cheeks is totally OK with abandoning her job and going to live with her husband out in the Boondocks. She’s cool like that. So Daigo starts scouring the local paper for jobs and comes up with an advertisement that simply reads “Departures”. He thinks it might be a travel agent or something, and he heads down to the office, where to his shock he is hired on the spot before being told what the job is. The boss, he just can “tell” who is right for the job. It’s all a bit weird, but the boss kind of bribes him with a big salary and pays him up front, so Daigo jumps headfirst into a job which entails the ceremonial preparation of the dead.
As an aside, though an important one, apparently ceremonial preparers of the dead are not particularly well respected in Japan. To the point of being scorned. This is a bit strange, because their ritual is beautiful, elaborate, painstaking, and full of deep human significance for the family and friends who witness it. It’s not a behind-the-scenes labor but rather an ostentatious element of the funeral process, performed by professionals who are efficient, respectful, and well-paid. After the ceremony, we inevitably find the relatives giving their deepest gratitude to Daigo and his boss.
But opinion on the street? Shoot, you might as well sell crack to kindergarteners. It’s a strange social quirk, or at least set up that way in the film, so Daigo long resists telling his extremely flexible and understanding wife what it is that he now does for a living. When he finally does tell her, she leaves him.
In the meantime, the film manages to set up two subplots. The first is that the public bath that Daigo used to go to as a child is still open, and he renews a childhood friendship with the proprietor’s son as well as the old proprietor herself. The relationship with the son also sours as he finds out Daigo is one of those freaky death ritual people.
Luckily, Daigo’s wife finds out she’s pregnant and decides to come back. Besides, she was just too good-natured to stay angry long. Anyway, the second subplot involves Daigo’s feelings of abandonment because of the way his father left his family when Daigo was maybe 10 years old. He brings his (no longer abandoner #2) wife out to the river where he and his father exchanged “stone-letters”. The concept is that you’d find a stone that perfectly expressed how you were feeling and give it to somebody else, so they could understand. I’d like to say that such a concept is very Japanese, but I’m afraid I don’t quite know the Japanese well enough to know whether that’s “so typically Japanese” or whether it’s just “weird”.
Well, the crises come hard and fast at this point. First the old public bath proprietor dies, and despite the fact that her son despises ceremonial preparers of the dead, he sure as heck wants him some ceremonial preparation for his mom, so in comes Daigo. See, Mr. Bigot? See how ceremonial preparers of the dead are people too, and when you need them they are able to cast off old grudges and help you, even though you have wronged them in the past? See that? Yes, you do. You are contrite, so you are forgiven.
Second, a telegram arrives addressed to his late mother, informing her of the very recent death of Daigo’s father somewhere distant. Daigo initially refuses to go to his father’s funeral – I mean he had no contact, didn’t know if he was alive or dead, etc. – but is convinced by a co-worker who had abandoned her own son years ago that he ought to go. (Abandonment – theme, or the only thing the director could think of?)
Daigo and his wife arrive in time to see the body being carelessly manhandled by undertakers who apparently do not know the art of ceremonial preparation of the dead. “Stand back, I’m a professional!” Daigo metaphorically screams, and he begins the long process of preparation, and of healing.
In the midst of the process something falls out of his father’s cold, dead hand (and no, it’s not Charlton Heston’s gun). It’s the stone-letter he gave his father years and years ago, and this is cathartic in all the ways you would expect it to be.
And it is implied that everybody lives happily ever after. Well, I guess not everybody. I mean, we wouldn’t want Daigo to unemployed again, right?