Cover of "Departures"

Cover of Departures

Maybe I’m one of the last people to find out about the 2008 Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Film, Departures. But I finally saw it last night. I’m not sure what drew me to the film as I was speeding through the aisles at Blockbuster. (I’m probably one of the last people who still physically drives to the video store to rent videos, then drives back to return them.)

As I was watching it, and the end of the film was approaching, I tried to predict what would happen to Daigo, the main character. “Maybe he goes and becomes a cellist, fulfilling his lifelong dream!” I thought. “No, that would be American. This is an Asian movie, so it’s got to be about honoring the family.”

Well, it turns out both answers were right. I think the message in the film was about accepting the unexpected nature of life, embracing what is not known, and seeing that our dreams are unfolding exactly as they should be. The ending of the film, as I saw it, was the fulfillment of a dream – a dream he didn’t even know he had. Since I tend to see themes in movies and extend them to be “universal human themes”, I’ll do the same here. Daigo believes that his lifelong dream was to be a cellist. However, he never even acknowledges, until the last scene of the film, that his deepest dreams were to be seen (by his father, by his wife, by those who love him), to be loved, to be appreciated for his way of doing something, and to openly love something with his whole heart.

As I saw the contrast between the two opening scenes of the movie – a small family bereavement ceremony, solemn and silent, and a symphony orchestra concert performance of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, as big and showy as it gets – I appreciated the lessons that Daigo learns in confronting the deaths of so many clients. He goes from sitting on a stage, one of many, performing at a distance from an audience who largely doesn’t care (his orchestra dissolves based on low audience attendance), to performing for small, intimate audiences of intensely interested bereaved family members, doing work that touches them so deeply they can barely express their gratitude in words. He goes from having a glamorous job that everyone envies – a cellist in the big city – to a job he never even finds the courage to tell his closest friends, out of shame.

But it’s through his new job – literally coming into contact with dead bodies on a daily basis – that he learns about the many ways to live. He learns that the very small things, done with respect and care, done peacefully and beautifully, can be of great comfort to people. Daigo’s work allows loved ones to see their dead family members one last time, to honor them for how they were seen during their lives. This was sometimes the only chance they got to express their deepest feelings to the ones they loved.

This is beautifully captured in the final scene, where wordlessness spoke volumes, healing both a son and a father, and a father-to-be.

If what I’m writing sounds cryptic, go and see this movie. It’s about death and life. It is elegant, it is simple, it is real. It is universal.