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Departures, 2008, Yojiro Takita

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Kimberly de Berzunza
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Departures, 2008, Yojiro Takita

I had seen this film before and knew I wanted to watch it again for this purpose. It won an Oscar for best foreign film, and the friend I visited during our seminar actually worked on it! I remembered really appreciating its beauty, and when Professor Yasar spoke about Japanese film, I knew I needed to see it again, and I wanted to recommend it to our group. You can rent it on Amazon Prime, or watch for free on Tubi, which had a couple of short commercials, but not too annoying.

The story is of a cellist who loses his job and moves home to northern Japan to live in the house he inherited from his mother. When he arrives he finds a job as an assistant to a mortician.  It is a difficult job for him at first, but through the film he learns to appreciate it.

One immediate huge cultural difference is that Japanese families are apparently present during the preparation of their loved one's body. This seems strange to the American way, but it's definitely interesting. Another interesting point is seeing different religious traditions in Japan, and how they hold different kinds of funerals.

One of the themes is the inevitability of death, and the respect everyone deserves in death or when dealing with the death of a loved one. In this film we see how many Japanese find death something to fear, or "unclean." Yet we also see how death is viewed as a gateway to the next life, and there is a theme of rebirth and redemption.

Another thing I noticed in the film was gender roles. The cellist's wife is incredibly supportive, agreeing cheerfully to the move, and always preparing elaborate dinners for the two of them. However, she doesn't know for a long time what her husband's work is, and when she finds out, she wants her husband to quit. She is upset that he has hidden this work from her, and she doesn't want him to do it.

Another gender issue comes up when they go to prepare a dead girl and find out she's a male. The family knows this, obviously, but is struggling to come to grips wth this reality.

I saw again here how the limited dialogue, slower pacing, and use of scenery and open space really set a tone for the film, just as others we saw or discussed. 

This film could be used in a middle school classroom, but I think it would be a hard sell. It would work better for older students. I highly recommend it.

Dennis O'Connell
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Departures (2008 Best Foreign Film of the Year)

Departures, directed by Yojiro Takita, involves a young man who loses his prestigious job as a cello player in an orchestra and has to "go backward" on his career path.  Like a salmon swimming upstream (scene in movie makes this connection), the protagonist moves away from the city (a symbol of success) and goes back to his childhood home in the countryside.  He stumbles into taking a job as a mortician, preparing bodies for burial or cremation.  In Japan, this career has a lot of negative stigma attached to it.  His neighbors, originally impressed with the young man and his success, begin to shun him.  His wife, up to this point very supportive, becomes disgusted when she learns of his job, and leaves him to return to her family (calling him "filthy" for touching dead bodies).  

The young man is in a quandary.  He did not like this job either when he was first introduced to it.  Over time, however, he learns from his mentor that death is an inevitable part of life.  We must choose to live life with gusto and flavor before death takes us as well.  The young man sees the profound effects this job has on people as they celebrate the passing of a loved one.  He is offering an amazing service which touches deep into people's souls.  The service he renders comes to play in his own life as he has to deal with the death of a father he never really knew.  

This movie is so good on so many levels.  It shows that no matter whether the family is Christian, Buddhist, Shinto, or non-religious, all must die and deal with the death of loved ones at some point or another.  I am trying to figure out ways I can use at least parts of it in my third grade classroom.  Part of the difficulty is that death is a sensitive subject in all cultures, including our own.  There are lovely scenes of the Japanese countryside and glimpes into the cycle of life/death/renewal throughout.  Scenes of cherry blossoms and flying birds carry great significance.  For those interested in architecture, there are a few scenes where modern architecture and current Japanese advertising techniques are juxtaposed against an ancient torii gate.  

A lovely theme which recurs in the movie is that of the "stone letter".  The protagonist explains that before their was writing, someone would select a stone which best reflected the feelings they were having about someone.  They would give this stone to the person who would then feel and interpret the stone and its significance.  I could easily see showing a few selected scenes (father and son exchanging stones, protagonist giving a stone to his wife in the creekbed, and the stone found in the hands of the deceased father) and then having students exchange names in the class and having the homework assignment of finding a stone that represented how they felt about this person.  Students could share orally or in writing what they meant by giving the stone and how it felt to receive a stone.