Departures

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I’ve watched “Departures,” a 2008 Japanese movie that revolves around a young man who accidentally becomes a mortician. He dresses up and put make-ups to the dead, thereby producing a solemn but intimate ceremony that allows loved ones to send off the dead, before more formal funeral begins.

What struck me was how smooth and beautiful his movements are when he does what he does to the dead. Every excess movement was eliminated, leaving only what’s absolutely necessary. Fast and slow are mixed perfectly such that he wastes no time, yet nothing is rushed. This is what we Japanese call “kata.” You can see this pursuit of perfection everywhere if you visit Japan and look around carefully, from train conductors to sushi chefs, from shop cashiers to tea ceremony masters. One of the proud heritage of Japan.

I used to despise repetition. Certainly in the context of software engineering, repetition is almost the definition of waste, after all. It was my enemy #1 that drove my passion for the automation the last 15 years and it still does. But I was immature to extrapolate that view to the rest of the human activities. We tend to celebrate 
so-called “creative” work more highly than repetitive work, but what actually should be celebrated is those people who do any job with a pride, with the intentionality, and with the never-ending pursuit of perfection. The movie tells that in a wonderfully Japanese way, I found it quite moving.

The other thing that left me a strong impression was scenes in which people eat, as the symbol of life. Obviously one needs to eat in order to live, but there’s so much more depth to it. Everywhere I go, eating together is universally a communal experience. Sharing the same food brings people together. We tend to think of a life as something fundamentally individual, but really we don’t live alone. A life rather only exists in the fabric of relationship. Perhaps another Japanese (or maybe Asian) value. The movie contrasted this so beautifully against death, which is truly individual and lonely.

All of those plus so many more thought provoking scenes, along with a plenty of funny scenes to lighten up the mood, set in a beautiful rural Japan that made this city boy long for country side, with magical music from legendary Joe Hisaishi. Really a wonderful movie.

You should watch it. If you do, let me know what you think.

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