Friday 3 July 2009


I rarely cry in my life. But I did shed more than one tear when I watched this Japanese film Departures. The subject was quite unusual: how a young cellist quits being a musician and leaves Tokyo to start a new life – so far nothing unusual, but the new job he finds is: to prepare, make up, dress up the deads for their next journey, hence the title. My Japanese friend Yasuchi who has just left for Tokyo to send his grandmother to her afterlife told me that the people doing this job were considered a lower caste in Japan.
This film will hopefully be shedding a different light on the subject.
Death has been present in my life ever since I was a child. If we learn about the passing away of a beloved one, it’s a rarer case to witness that moment when someone leaves his earthly life.
When I was 18, I lost a dear aunt of mine. Quite ironically, it was when she visited my mother who was being operated from a tumour that she underwent a checking and was diagnosed cancer. My mother recovered but she started to get ill. To spare his two sons, my uncle decided to conceal the fact from them and only told them that she was having a long sickness.  Unfortunately, he also told his wife the same thing.  Eventually, things got worse and he had to tell them… only one week before her death. I don’t know whether she knew what was happening to her. The two boys who had not been paying much attention to their mother during her illness were suddenly hit by a devastating sense of guilt. But it was too late to catch up with the lost time. 
Then the last day.
It was a Sunday, in November. I had not quite caught the extent of the tragedy that was taking place in front of my eyes. We visited my aunt like we often did. I ran up to her room to greet her. She was lying in bed, looked at me and smiled weakly.
I had known her ever since I was five. She loved me very much, maybe because I was more sensitive than her own sons. Maybe she recognized how lonely I actually was because I was different. She related to that. I remember how one day, she led me to her room to play me a song she liked, the B side of a popular single.
‘We all know the other song’, she said. ‘This one is different.’ A slow and sentimental song, it was. At the age of seven I didn’t fully grab what she really meant. I only found it odd that she shared that song with me while her guests, the other adults, were chatting and dining in the living room. Now that I think back, she was barely in her mid twenties. She must have felt lonely.
She enjoyed teasing me a lot. She would ask an embarrassing question and watch me stand there in front of her speechless and then she would laugh. 
That Sunday, she was no more than a faint shadow of herself. She didn’t seem to understand or fully realize the tragedy in which she was the unwilling heroine. The afternoon went by slowly. The whole family was there, as well as the doctor. Everybody was getting ready for the final hour. We all prayed. I stayed alone with my aunt, sitting at the end of her bed, while I heard sobbing and crying coming from the other rooms. Strangely, everyone found a way to avoid the crucial moment. My aunt didn’t seem to acknowledge my presence anymore. Did she know what was happening? As the sun went down, so did she. Slowly. Ineluctably.  Death had a mesmerizing effect on me. I saw the room where we were, then the house, the city, the planet… We’re not much in this world, I thought. 
Departures reminded me of these times when I lost people I loved and cared for. It’s a beautiful thing to accompany the dead on their last journey. Last? Last according to us, until it’s our turn. Then it’s just another journey.
A departure.

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