Watching Departures in Japanese with no Subtitles

Departures おくりびと, Okuribito

It was a talking point in Japanese class back in 2009 as it won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards. It didn’t attract me at the time: slow, quiet story (I was going through my Darker than Black phase) and I was frantically studying for my exams so movies wouldn’t help me study. I’ve now caught it and I highly recommend it for its storytelling and its ability to teach Japanese.

I watched it without subtitles to test my listening skills and I enjoyed the movie tremendously and it helped me to learn Japanese.

I managed to follow the film but I needed my Sight and Sound synopsis for parts but I got it.

The film centres on Daigo Kobayashi, a cellist in a Tokyo orchestra that goes bankrupt. Desperate for a job, he sells his cello and, with his wife, moves back to his hometown. He trawls through ads until he sees one for assisting departures. Under the impression it is for a travel agency he is shocked to find it is for a funeral service. Desperate for a job, he takes it and despite initial trouble, goes on one of those journeys that guarantee he will learn something.

So the story isn’t exactly revolutionary, what really impressed me was the cultural aspects.

The contrast between East and West gets beyond the aesthetics with the deeper questions and dilemmas the protagonist faces. For the first time, hearing and seeing something that is articulated in class through anecdotes and worksheets drives home the detail.

The themes and imagery specific to Japan – of Buddhism and the cycle of life are prevalent. What was really interesting was seeing what is considered taboo in Japan. The fact that death is such a taboo is evidenced in the extreme reactions of various people to the protagonist after finding out what his new occupation is.

To me it was fascinating. We in the west have no problem having the dead at the heart of our cities in cemeteries. We even picnic amongst graves, a common occurrence ever since the Romans. In the east, things like death and cutting, things considered to bring misfortune are avoided.

However, seeing the hero  overcome the reactions of people and complete his journey was satisfying and the ending struck me as touching rather than clichéd.

What really lifts this film is the music. The fact that the main character plays the cello allows Joe Hisaishi (the chap who scores Ghibli’s films) to create a beautiful score and transport us into the protagonist’s world with the recognition of the power of the music he plays. Here’s a taste:

The accompanying sweeping shots were a little OTT but forgivable. Less forgivable was the shot showing the protagonist’s reaction to the news of the orchestra being closed down. It seemed unnecessary and unintentionally hilarious. Minor quibbles.

My own experience with Japanese improved as a result of the slow page, the gentle and respectful conversations. Rewinding and enunciating the words after the characters helped me tremendously. The anime Excel Saga helped me but only because Excel yells out left and right and other non sequiturs etc.

It’s a simple film told gracefully. It’s an adult film. It struck me as a breath of fresh air and after watching The Book of Eli, Sherlock and other cartoonish films, I highly enjoyed it and can easily recommend others seeing it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.