Sunday, March 29, 2009


We don't take rituals very seriously these days. We see little meaning in fussing over minute details that our traditions prescribe. For us, they're just a throwback to the old days, and we do them just to keep the old people happy. Whether they're to celebrate the new year, or to celebrate a wedding, we skip through the processes as quickly as possible so we can move on to the next thing, getting on with our lives.

It amazes me that a movie can open my eyes to what we've been missing out on: the deeper meaning behind the details of a ceremony when it is carried out with the proper respect and reverence that it deserves.

"Departures" is a look at the living, and how they must deal with the mortal remains of those who have moved on. After all, death isn't a concern for the departed but for the living who must find a way to dispose of the body that's been left behind, and to cope with the loss. These days, we seem to focus on the former, just dumping the body in a hole or incinerating it; then once out of sight, out of mind. Coping with the loss is easy thereafter because we have emotionally detached ourselves from the process. No fuss, no muss.

But with a pace as slow, methodical and calm as its subject, "Departures" takes us through the encoffinment ceremony with such sensitivity that we who generally do not shed a tear at funerals we attend are emotionally moved at each ceremony depicted in the movie.

The work of the "NK agent" (NK stands for something in Japanese meaning "to casket", if we can count "casket"as a verb) is to prepare the deceased for its final journey. This includes the washing and the origami-like wrapping of the body just before it is placed into its coffin. The ceremony is done in full view of the deceased's family, so the body gets treated with the utmost respect. The objective is to restore the corpse back to the way it used to look like so that the loved ones can identify the final image of the deceased as someone they knew in life and remember for the rest of their own lives.

When people die, biological processes render them unrecogniseable. For example, their cheeks hollow out, while oddly enough nails and hair continue to grow. The NK agent performs a ritual that dresses the body in the clothes it is accustomed to wearing, returns facial features to the way they once were and make-up brings living colour back to the pallid face so that its loved ones don't just send a body off to the incinerator, they send the person off to his or her next destination.

What's moving is when the living actually recognise the desceased for who they are, and the grieving kicks in. People express grief in different ways, through tears, fury, and even laughter, but as long as the NK agent has done a good job no one can remain stoic, everybody is part of the grieving process and as a result the memory of the departed lingers that much stronger, that much more real.

But the ceremony is much more than saying a respectful farewell. It actually reminds us how precious being alive is, and how much more we should love those closest to us so that we can let them go with no regrets when the inevitable occurs.

Beautiful cinematography including the motif of migratory geese who, like life, are present for a short time and then fly away. It's really the dead that are moving on; not us who are staying, regardless of how much we try to make life go on. How paradoxical.

What's also paradoxical is the sense that ironically, the NK agent is a dying trade. That's what's truly sad about this movie. Who will help us remember once the profession becomes extinct? Guess that's where we are now.

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