Departures (2008)

Imagine a film where there is death, and death, and… death.  And death. And death. and death, and… death.  And death. And death. and death, and… death.  And death. And death. and death, and… death.  And death. And death. and death, and… death.  And death. And death. and death, and… death.  And death. And death. and death, and… death.  And death.

That’s Departures. 

A tragedy drama that lightens the mood with a relatable awkwardness that resonates with the audience through humour. The film brought us through an emotional rollercoaster through the life of Daigo Kobayashi (Masahiro Motoki), as his short career as a cellist comes to a sudden end. Desperate to find a job, he chances upon an opportunity at NK Agents. A cultural shock that changes his life forever.

Departures is directed by Yōjirō Takita released in 2008. It won Japan’s first Best Foreign Film in the 81st Academy Awards among many other accolades.

Why should you watch Departures?

The technical aspects of the film, the sound, cinematography, casting and set design was impeccably done right to create a film with many dimensions to the story, being able to alternate smoothly between humour and sadness during its emotional moments. And did I mention that Joe Hisaishi composed the score for this film? Departures provides us with a relatable profoundness while providing us an insight to Japan’s culture all while being a film which anyone can relate to and empathise with.

As we follow Daigo, an adult still trying to figure out his future as his past haunts him, I believe that this film in a reflection of life really is, a BIG struggle while you live for the little moments where you enjoy meals with your family, the times we cherish as we know they’ll never last forever. Time waits for no one, when death comes, please honour your loved one. The sentimental feeling turns into regret as time passes.


‘Death is like a gateway, dying doesn’t mean the end. You go through it and onto the next thing. As a gatekeeper, I’ve sent many on their way “Off you go then, we’ll meet again.” That what I tell them.’ — Shokichi Hirata

“We’ll meet again.” is what I said to my grandfather before sending him off for cremation. The shock I had when I heard the gatekeeper Shokichi Hirata say that to the Hot Spring’s lady boss before her cremation.

Tissues should be prepared beforehand. If anything, Departures is indeed a bittersweet and heart wrenching gem.

On the topic of death…

In the film, we watch our main character, Daigo, unknowingly joins NK agents, a company that provides encoffining services for the deceased. In Japan, under the traditional shinto belief system, death is seen to be dirty, and it is considered as taboo to even talk about death, The term ‘Death Pollution’ is coined, for those who go near the dead are seen as ‘impure’, and people tend to avoid them as they believe it brings bad luck. As such, our main character is seen to be discriminated against by many, even his wife and childhood friend. 

Daigo and Ikuei Sasaki (Tsutomu Yamazaki) preparing a body for Encoffining

What is Encoffining, ‘nōkan no gi’ ?

There are 20 steps in a Japanese Funeral, the 5th is the Encoffining ritual. The process of cleaning (yukan) and putting makeup and dressing the body and preparing it to be placed in the coffin. Shinto priests were the ones who handled the bodies of the dead, in current times it is usually done by an agent from a funeral home. As we have seen in the film, Eternal beauty of the dead is preserved through make-up and elegance.

The film explores the cycle of life and how people deal with them, post death grief or the birth of a new life. It is a delicate delve into how the Japanese deal with their traditional beliefs and personal feelings, that sometimes tradition should be viewed with an open mind.

Cutaways and the Cycle of Life

Tsuyako Yamashita’s cremation cutting away to barren winter land of Swans migrating

In Winter, Whooper Swans migrate away, like how death isn’t the end, it’s a journey to the next destination wherever that might be.

Mika (Daigo’s Wife) watering plants in Spring while pregnant

In Spring, the blooming of the cherry blossoms that represent new life and the fragility of it.


When I was watching this film, I was reminded of my own family. Death is going to be a friend as it claims the generations before me. Watching how the families in Departures dealt with death felt like a reminder of the inevitable. As the saying goes, what is grief if not love lasting?

How the film explores death and life is something that is so rare in films today. Death always seems to be a punishment to the one deceased, the end of everything. Instead, Departures shows it off as a part of life and the industry that surrounds it. It has helped to open up conversations about death, instead of letting it be stigmatised and ignored.

Written by: SgNewWave 2022-2023 Exco

Some critiques from SGNewWave’s members

“I loved the use of depth of field. It was really impactful and made key moments visually more important. I also liked the use of plant and pay-off (eg. having fun in the kitchen, getting pregnant). Other than that, I think the movie is very significant and a poignant celebration of death. The use of music really sold those scenes too.” — Kai En

“The movie’s setting felt lively and well established with characters that feel and act in believable ways. The movie’s theme about starting fresh felt like a creative use of the movie’s plot with bodies and cremation and such.” — Ethan

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