Departure (Okuribito) is a Japanese film that has the main character Daigo Kobayashi, an orchestra cellist who has been dissolved from the job and stumbled upon a new job as a ‘Nokanshi’ (a professional mortician who ritually dress and prepare bodies before they are placed in coffins) through an advertisement entitled “Departures” which he thought was a travel agency advertisement but he was wrong. Along working, he found the meaning and contentment of the job though he was irked by it at first. His wife and many others despise the job but Daigo took pride of his work and perfected the art of ‘Nokanshi’. The film depicts the journey of Daigo with troubled family past as he uncovers the wonder, joy and meaning of life and living through the deaths of others and his work as a ‘Nokanshi’. The theme of the film is clearly about dealing with death and loss, and the art of ‘Nokanshi’ with the few dynamic characters and psychological concepts that portrayed significantly throughout the film which is discussed further as below:-
1. Daigo Kobayashi
A quiet and troubled (father complex) cellist in Tokyo who had to transition from the life of the city back to living in his hometown in the countryside due to lay-off from the orchestra. Upon accidentally getting the job with NK Agency as a professional mortician, he was wary and worried about the job as he had to deal with dead bodies which he had never experienced before. Also, the job is frowned upon in the society as it is deemed taboo to have contact with dead bodies. For example, during the fight between Daigo and his wife, Mika after finding out that Daigo was working as a professional ‘Nokanshi’, she was furious that he lied to her about the job and feels disgusted with him as he is “unclean” touching and cleaning the deceased. His wife even threatened to leave back to her parent’s home until he quit the job.
Even Daigo’s long time childhood friend whom he met in the public bath, showed a disgust towards Daigo when they coincidently met up on the street one day and warned him to quit his job. The job ‘Nokanshi’ is viewed as an unmentionable job because it is a low caste job and taboo in the society. Nevertheless, he did not draw back from continuing his job as he found a sense of contentment and purpose in the art of ‘Nokanshi’. As a person who appreciates art (music appreciation as an orchestra cellist), symbolically the art of ‘Nokanshi’ gives him the sense of peace and purpose in giving the living the sense of closure of the deceased and bringing joy to the living through it. He found beauty in it and started living in the art of it through day by day feeling fortunate of his life. From then on, he has a sense of confidence (somewhat noble) viewed by the living that is sending off their deceased family members. The film captured the synchrony of a cellist (art of music lover) working in an ironic job of ‘Nokanshi’ which is an art itself. Therefore, it is showed that Daigo furthered the job as he foud to appreciate the meaning of the art of ‘Nokanshi’.
2. Shoei Sasaki (the President of NK Agency)
He is the boss and mentor to Daigo as he sees potential in him to be in the job as a ‘Nokanshi’. He was the one who hired Daigo on the first encounter without having a proper job interview session. He has an intuition that Daigo is suitable for the job. Shoei lived his live in a fine and noble manner. He appreciates the finer things in life, for example, his choice of food when he had puffer roe (right image) while enjoying his tea and advising Daigo about the job and how to live life to the fullest. He portrays as the wise man between the living and the death with an eccentric persona.
3. Deal with unfinished business or duties
In the film, the mortician’s job is to restore the beauty of the deceased to resemble their living look as much as possible, ritually dress and prepare the bodies before they are placed in coffins. In one of Shoei’s assignment, while looking for a long while at the picture of the body he was to restore, he also asked for the family to bring their mother’s favourite lipstick colour to apply on the deceased. In another assignment, Daigo was in-charged to do the ritual and he asked whether he should dress up the deceased who is a homosexual as male or female. All this death rituals allow it to become meaningful in a personal manner of the family members. Although applying make-ups or dressing up the deceased is not necessary beneficial to the deceased but it serves to address the livings in dealing with unfinished business through fulfilling their personal duties for the deceased last wishes. By doing so, the rituals allow the livings to move on and mediate the transition into another phase of life in the absence of the deceased. Based on the Task of Grief by J. W. Worden, these rituals are done to signify that the survivors’ of the deceased are accepting the reality of the loss and to work through the pain of grief. Furthermore, it is ultimately to re-adjust their lives without the deceased. A sense of fulfilling their duties or unfinished business with the deceased is conveyed through the rituals. For example, the ritual Daigo performed on his father when he was there to see him one last time (image above). For all the time of his living, Daigo was not able to be with his father as his father left him and his mother for some reason. Hence, the performance of the ritual on his father is a symbolic act of fulfilling his duty as a son.
4. A closure with the departed through connection of the art of ‘Nokanshi’ (a form of coping mechanism)
Death is an inevitable phase in life and a taboo in most Asian culture or all cultures (most avoidable topic to talk about), Giblin and Hug stated that “…in a culture in a culture that denies death, a funeral can make death a reality, normalize the grieving process, and introduce the possibilities for hope, imagination, and new life for survivors”. With that, the death rituals done are a form of therapy for the survivors for them to cope with grieve and loss of their loved ones. Rituals that involve symbolism easing the deceased to depart to another realm like how the ‘Nokanshi’ does. It is a form of coping mechanism to maintain a connection with the deceased while moving on with life through the closure of sending off the deceased with a proper ritual. It serves as an important solace for the mourners. By having a death ritual to send off the deceased, it helps to ease the grieving and loss process of the livings. Therefore, it can deal with unfinished business or duties to be fulfilled and a form of connection created between the deceased and the living as it is spiritually and psychologically healing for the grieving and loss process.
Overall, the film portrayed a distinct meaning about the art of death rituals for the easing of grieving and loss process of the livings. It is very symbolic to vary cultures of the way of the rituals are performed. For example, Chinese culture also has a similar ritual of sending the departed through burning ‘paper money’ or other materialistic objects made of paper as they believe that the deceased has crossed over to the other realm and living there. It showed that the survivors are staying connected with the deceased through such rituals. Therefore, this film reminds us all that death in inevitable but it should not be feared or be frowned upon as it is the natural phase of life. Additionally, it acts as a mean of being reborn to a new life. With that, a few similar themed films that I would recommend for a dose of treasure and appreciate the life you have now and never to take things or people for granted. Life is a fragile glass.
Footnote – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8dwe7GR9kO4
Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MKRQy1VHcQo