Departures, winner of the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film of 2009, is a heartfelt movie that follows a similar storyline to the book it is based on, Coffinman, by Shinmon Aoki. The film presents the Nembutsu teaching in a very emotional and dynamic manner despite its length and use of English subtitles. I felt refreshed after the movie was over, having encountered the Dharma in a different form and with a new understanding. Essentially, I was able to watch the teachings of the Nembutsu unfold in the life of this mortician.
Daigo Kobayashi (Masahiro Motoki), unexpectedly out of work as a cellist, comes across an ad from a company he believes to be a flight agency: the ad features propellers, peanuts and ticket counters. However, when he shows up for the interview, he realizes the word “departures” has more than just one meaning. Face to face with a very persuasive boss, he is soon on the job preparing corpses for their final farewell alongside his new mentor, “the boss.” Thus, unable to take back his initial inquiry into what he thought was a travel agency job, he is pushed to work in the mortuary business, and desperately tries to keep his job as a mortician a secret. Once his occupation unfolds and leaks to his wife and friends, he becomes the epitome of filthiness, and his family and friends turn their backs on him, expressing their distaste by refusing to associate with him, touch him, or even be near him. Daigo however, continues to pursue his line of work as a mortician; sacrificing his respect as a friend, husband and later, father to be.
The reasons why he chose to continue may vary depending on one's point of view. Did he somehow develop a morbid personality and become fascinated with dead bodies? Did he no longer care about what people thought about him? Was it a “mid-life crisis”? Or was it that he grew tiresome of being subject to the demise of the social structure than constrained him from being a free, independent thinker?
At first I thought the mortician job enabled Daigo to finally have the opportunity to take control of shaping of his own life, after having been abandoned by his father as a child, fired as a mediocre cellist in a mediocre orchestra, and saddened by the passing of his mother; all of this he had no direct control over. And clearly, as the story unfolds, he finds his calling in a line of work where every preparation for cremation is done with the utmost respect for the deceased. This is a duty he just could not disavow.
However, I began to think that, despite all his losses and misfortunes, Daigo should not be perceived as a “tragic hero.” Rather, he is someone who was able to accept the cards he was dealt. All these events in his life were the “causes and conditions,” events which ultimately fostered his feeling of fulfillment in the service and honor he provided for the dead, rather than events resulting from his loss of self-control.
As the Tannisho mentions, “When one entrusts themselves to the Other Power, they will attain birth in the true and real fulfilled land.” We do not have the power to dictate the path of our lives; however, by accepting our lives as they unfold, we can gain a sense of peace in our daily lives.
Daigo reaches “the other shore” through his work as a mortician. With every preparation for the departure of the deceased done with grace and ease, he displays his respect for those no longer in living form, copes with death, and understands it as a part of human life. It is his Nirvana.
Namu amida butsu.
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