Film Review: The Departure

A documentary character study of a Japanese former party boy turned suicide counselor, 'The Departure' observes much, and says not enough.
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Once a reckless, rebellious partier, Ittetsu Nemoto eventually found meaning in life as a Zen Buddhist priest, with a practice devoted to counseling the suicidal. He seems to find as much purpose in his work, acting as a beacon of hope to depressed and broken souls, as he does in supporting his young family—wife, Yuki, and toddler son, Teppei. But the work also takes a toll, as Nemoto makes all too clear in Lana Wilson’s revealing, meditative documentary portrait, The Departure.

Nemoto confesses that he can’t let on to those he counsels just how exhausting it is for him to be constantly on-call to those who reach out for him, responding at all hours to phone calls, texts and emails expressing utter despair. In the warmly lit intimacy of Nemoto’s home and temple, Wilson and cinematographer Emily Topper aptly capture the strain—pictured in Nemoto’s tired eyes and posture, heard in his voice as he marks yet another appointment in his daily planner. And, in his routines and rhythms, the film depicts his indefatigability. From playing with his son, to planting seeds in his garden, he nourishes his own spirit, before hopping onto his motorcycle and taking off to rescue another friend, or stranger, who’s texted in the middle of the night: “I want to die.”

Considering the staggeringly high rate of suicide in Japan, described here as a “serious social phenomenon,” Nemoto has his hands full caring for people who want to die, hearing confessions from just about anyone who comes across his cell number. Although the film more or less assumes the viewer’s knowledge of this cultural phenomenon, it strongly makes the case that for Nemoto, certainly, suicide has been an inescapable fact of life since he was a child and one of his uncles took his own life. Death continues to envelop Nemoto’s world, as he ventures into the homes of those he ministers, and also hosts retreats where those contemplating suicide can experience what he calls “the departure.”

During the departure, he guides his flock through physical and thought exercises that allow them to truly ponder the nothingness of death. His goal, he says, is to create space for them to share their problems, with the hope that through art and expression maybe they can find a reason to live. In a metaphorical and practical sense, Wilson’s film appears to have created much-needed space for Nemoto to share his problems.

Through the well-paced unfolding of Nemoto’s character and backstory, Wilson allows for the understanding that the confessor needed to confess and somewhat ease his own burden. He can’t let his clients know how tough it is to take on their misery, but he lets us know. The camera observes without prejudice as he slips easily into old habits of drinking and staying out all night, except that now, instead of carousing with foolhardy partiers, he toasts with depressed dads whom he has to coax away from the abyss.

Nemoto’s hope springs eternal, even in the face of his clients’ unrelenting depression. Yet, while the film reveals the special connection he shares with those he counsels, juxtaposed with his love for his family, Wilson doesn’t delineate a feature-length perspective that brings Nemoto’s story full-circle. A few threads emerge, and dangle. Nemoto, who’s already suffered a heart attack, receives dire warnings from his doctor about stress-related illness, but that’s merely background to his practice. As depicted here, Nemoto encounters during that practice just one skeptic, a client’s grandfather, and, in one drunken moment, he reproaches himself for spending more time ministering to the suicidal than raising his son—but otherwise, his routine flows without meeting any hard, defining resistance. The portrait, well-sketched, seems to trace the same lines over and over, without reaching a conclusion.

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