Academy Award Winner, Best Foreign Language Film. From Japan, Departures follows Daigo Kobayashi (Masahiro Motoki), a devoted cellist in an orchestra that has just been dissolved and who is suddenly left without a job. Daigo decides to move back to his old hometown with his wife to look for work and start over. He answers a classified ad entitled “Departures” thinking it is an advertisement for a travel agency only to discover that the job is actually for a “Nokanshi” or “encoffineer,” a funeral professional who prepares deceased bodies for burial and entry into the next life. While his wife and others despise the job, Daigo takes a certain pride in his work and begins to perfect the art of Nokanshi, acting as a gentle gatekeeper between life and death, between the departed and the family of the departed. The film follows his profound and sometimes comical journey with death as he uncovers the wonder, joy and meaning of life and living.
Born in 1955, Yojiro Takita joined Hiroshi Mukai’s Sushi Productions as an assistant director in 1976, making his directorial debut in 1981 with “Chikan Onna Kyoshi” and going on to helm over 20 films. His first feature film “Komikku Zasshi Nanka Iranai!” or “Comic Magazine” (1986), was selected for the New Directors/New Films Series. His subsequent filmography includes “The Yen Family” (1988), “We Are Not Alone” (1993), “The Exam” and “Secret” (both 1999). In 2001, his special effects fantasy “Onmyoji” (“The Ying-Yang Master”) stormed the box office and generated a sequel, “Onmyoji 2,” in 2003. His historical drama “When the Last Sword Is Drawn,” earned Best Film at the 2004 Japan Academy Prize Awards and his most recent films are “Ashura” (2005) and “The Battery” (2007). Takita is originally from the town of Takaoka, Japan and he currently resides in Tokyo.
Like a number of Japanese independent directors who were not under contract to big studios, among them Kiyoshi Kurosawa (“Tokyo Sonata“) and Masayuki Suo (“Shall We Dance“), Takita began his career in Japan’s “Pink Cinema” genre. “Pink Cinema” is erotic but never explicit: no genitalia or on screen couplings are depicted. For many filmmakers, it’s the American indie equivalent of getting your start with Roger Corman.
Bijan Tehrani: How did you come up with the idea for Departures?
Yojiro Takita: The lead actor, Mashahiro Motoki, had been traveling around the world about fifteen years ago, especially in India. He had a lot of thoughts about life and death, and wanted to make a film. Right around that time, he read a book about the econffineers, and wanted to make a film about them. But of course, when you have death as your central theme, it makes it very difficult to make a film like that. But a producer at an Independent production company that I knew became very intrigued with the project, and was very interested. He was the one who brought this project to me.
BT: Departures is the first feature film screenplay for Kundo Koyama. Had you worked with him before? How closely did you work with him when he was writing the screenplay?
YT: You’re right, it is his first feature screenplay, and it was my first time working with him. The very first draft that he came up with had more fantastical elements, and I wanted to bring the film into a more realistic realm. I wanted to give it a more realistic grittiness, and that is what I worked on with him.
BT: Prior to the making of “Departures”, did you know about Nokanshi, and had you ever been present in a Nokanshi ceremony? What were your methods of research?
YT: Like most Japanese people, I had never seen an econffineer before. I was familiar with them from reading about them in a book, but wasn’t sure about how they went about doing their tasks. So I went to an agency, did a lot of research and, along with the lead actor, we had the opportunity to get hands on training and learn how they go about doing things.
BT: All the characters in “Departures” are richly and precisely designed. Each character in the film displayed characteristics that the audience could identify with. Did you base any of these characters off of real life experiences?
YT: Many of the characters were indeed inspired by real life people that we came across. What we found is that every person has a very different response to the death of a loved one. I think there is a multitude of different ways that people can react. We attended a number of these ceremonies and got a lot of clues to the way that these people respond. I appreciate your observation, but I think it is more of a testament to the actors that it is to my abilities; the cast was fantastic. We were very careful to find people who could look the part in a realistic way and have the ability to be very emotionally true to that scene.
BT: As the film begins and you get to know the main character, Daigo, you don’t like what he is doing and may even hate what he is doing as a mortician. But as the film goes on, you see that he is just a gatekeeper of death. When he is dealing with the corpses, he is playing musical instruments, and that is so effective that you actually forget what he is doing and begin to like him. How did you manage to make this kind of character likeable? That is a very difficult thing to do.
YT: The film, as you probably see, is ultimately about living your life and overcoming trials and tribulations. I wanted to show that over time, and I think what you will find is that it is his journey of realizing that his job is a respectable occupation, despite all of the prejudices around it. You will notice that his playing the cello was not his desire, but one that was pressed upon him by his father who abandoned him as an early child. For him to find an occupation that he embraces is a way for him to discover himself. I think that is the journey that the audience is able to join as well, and I think that is why it has the effect that you are referring to.
BT: How did you come up with the visual style of the film? Many of the scenes in this film have the feeling of classic Japanese paintings.
YT: Japanese people tend to turn their eyes away from the rural areas and tend to focus more on the cities. The common attitude is that anything in the countryside is un-cool or old. But it is in the countryside that you often find the beauty and culture that has often buttressed Japanese society. I wanted to show some of those fleeting values that still remain in the countryside, and I wanted to capture it by really thinking about the Japanese aesthetics of space, and try to bring that out with camera work and lighting and the Japanese philosophy of harmony. Those things are very ingrained in Japanese culture.
BT: Has the making of “Departures” changed your way of looking at death?
YT: For a long time, death was something that I considered very alien to me, but at a certain age—certainly my age right now—it becomes very realistic, and creeps up on not just myself, but those I love around me. Working on the film, I began to realize that death is real, it is nothing to fear, and that the act of passing is actually quite beautiful. It made me realize that I wanted to live a life that is worthy of having a respectful departure. That said, I want to live a lot longer and continue to make a lot of films, so I am not ready to die yet.
BT: How important was winning the Best Foreign Language Award? What kind of effect will it have on your future as a filmmaker?
YT: I am about to find out. I am just getting started with thinking about my next film, and have no idea how it will effect my future.