A young cellist loses his orchestra job in Tokyo, sells his instrument and returns with his wife to his rural hometown. There, a misprinted want ad leads him unintentionally to apply as an “encoffiner” (nōkanshi)—one who performs a ceremony to prepare corpses for display and cremation. So begins Departures (2008), the masterful comedy-drama that won Japan’s first Best Foreign Film nod at the Oscars.
Departures is a quiet film, set to a lovely Joe Hisaishi score and conveyed by subtly expressive cinematography. The aforementioned cellist is Daigo Kobayashi, and his disappointing life slowly is reshaped by his employment to Mr. Sasaki, a veteran nōkanshi. Daigo finds peace and dignity through his work. The acting and dialogue are fantastic; but, in many long and largely wordless passages, the nōkan ceremony—performed with weight, beauty and delicacy—takes center stage.
The dead and those who handle them bear a very old stigma in Japan. Departures makes a different case: that the nōkan ceremony, which has become uncommon in modern Japan, is not filthy but beautiful. In the process the film does not trivialize death’s horror; it argues only that, in our lives and our treatment of the dead, we should not submit to decay. Life is always the answer to death—and Mr. Sasaki’s living quarters are filled with greenery. An unofficial translation of the film is embedded after the break. Seek out the film’s official translation for best results.
The high-salt diet
I left the experience with a sense that familiarizing and desensitizing ourselves to violence like this can turn us into zombies. Our lack of empathy and unwillingness to engage with those involved in tragedy stems from our comfort with the trauma those people are experiencing.
Ashley Gilbertson, a war photographer for Time, recently was asked to play and document The Last of Us Remastered. Thrust into the role of a violent killer, Gilbertson quickly melted down: a brief session left his “vision blurred” and his stomach in knots; and finally his mind “crashed out.” The protagonists’ zombielike indifference to the butchery around them baffled him. Yet, his own revulsion began similarly to dry up, even after he delegated the combat sequences to his assistant. Gilbertson concluded that his typical war photography is “an antitode to the type of entertainment this game represents”, a way to wake up people accustomed to atrocity.
In 1990, director Alan J. Pakula said, “Movie violence is like eating salt: the more you eat, the more you need to eat to taste it at all.” By then, increasingly callous audiences had “developed an insatiability for raw sensation”; and filmmakers had responded with works of ever worsening savagery. The fatal shotgun blast that heralded The Last of Us at E3 2012—a blast at which journalists cheered like spectators at the Colosseum—told an old story: transgression is normalized by repetition. Even the “Edward Pistolhands" apathy in The Last of Us, which so disturbed Gilbertson, was preceded and enabled by a loss of empathy in society at large. A person is changed by her surroundings—and no witness to brutality is unscathed.
Still Eating Oranges
First shoes in the moon’s bamboo garden were illuminated upward with each footfall. Someone to see the cracked mask lady. The wind had stitched patterns into world objects and glowblue animals were hiding in the reeds. Robed in a red robe, rough eternal skin, cutting rocks with a fingernail: she called out:
"First visitor, whose land is this land? and it is not mine, and its owner is unknown: when ripped souls drift by I mend them, and I keep company with the stars; and I am sustained; and you may leave now, having seen me, to tell all that I am real."
Still Eating Oranges