From the onset, Departures, Winner of the Best Foreign Film Oscar, directed by Yôjiro Takita and released in 2008, couples defeat—the protagonist loses his orchestra job—with humor—a live octopus, a botched video modeling attempt, and an embarrassing bath house encounter. Our protagonist, Daigo Kobayashi comes of age in many areas of his life: with his wife, profession, father, childhood neighbors, co-workers, fatherhood, and others’ deaths.
In four important ways, Takita’s film significantly departs from the coming-of-age cycle that Arnold Van Gennep describes: separation from home; transition (mentor, tasks and trials, failures, temptations, etc.); and acculturation back into an adult society.
First, the film begins with a later segment, as an adult NK agent. Second, no parents exist; therefore, no rebellion occurs. As close as the film gets to a parent figure is the rock letter, which looks like an egg (like the roe of puffin fish) and serves as a father stand-in but without mentoring. However, we don’t see doesn’t Daigo ever learning from his father, unlike the movies Big Fish and A River Runs Through It. In fact, when we finally sees his father’s face—as a corpse—it is blurred, without meaning or inspiration. Third, to come of age, Daigo does not leave home. Instead, he returns home(to his birth place) where he reevaluates and departs from his musical profession, deciding to pursue the undertaking profession. Fourth, and most importantly, as an adult—not as an adolescent–he fails to adopt social norms, as he undertakes being an apprentice in the “filthy business” of undertaking. (Perhaps, we see the same undertaking scene twice to portray his coming of age?)
Coming-of-age tales are modern extensions of Goethe’sbildungsroman, The Sorrow of Young Werther. They license teenage rebellion amidst a mentor in order to eventually secure adult stability among the status quo. Unlike parables, which espouse controversy, coming-of-age tales promote acculturation. As the bedrock narratives that produce father and son proprietorships, they strive to keep society’s members in line and maintain political, economic, social, educational, family, and religions systems. They teach us that if we want our art exhibited to the public and acclaimed by awarders, we must learn to color within the lines.
However, at the movie’s end, Daigo Kobayashi is still an outsider—and a happy one. He has learned to care not only for the body (corpse), but also for the mourners. With the gentlest of motions and the calmest of faces, Daigo Kobayashi creates a calm and respect for the dead and the mourning. He has elevated this “filthy business” to an art, achieved self-pride, and reconciled with his ashamed wife. Although he fails to be social accepted, he succeeds in creating a beautiful and productive life for himself and his family. The film, like his wife, endorses his outsider status as an artist. Ultimately, with the line, ”You were born to do this,” the film espouses privileging personal dreams over social acceptance and assimilation.
Although Departures departs from the plot and message of coming-of-age stories, it consistently illustrates what I call the self-actualization story, showing how the protagonist manages to reject social norms and success templates in order to lead a self-fulfilling life amidst a few chosen loved ones. This is exactly what Aristotle calls eudaemonia, for lack of a better translation–self-fulfillment.