In a minimalist wooden space that looks like a cross between a zen buddhist temple and a community center, a priest asks a diverse assortment of Japanese men and women to simulate death.
They write make lists of things they value in their life on post-its, and dispose them slowly one by one as directed by the priest. When they only have one item (of their choice) left, the priest pauses for a moment, then requests that they jettison the last post-it. This is dying, and this is death, the priest informs them.
The priest is Ittetsu Nemoto, a kindly but stoic man, capable of superhuman patience. From one dawn to the next, he is constantly offering himself as a support to those experiencing suicidal thoughts. If he isn’t visiting someone at their residence, he is texting someone else on his iPhone 5, or talking to them on speakerphone while driving to another person who needs help. This pattern occurs recurs throughout the film, and even though Nemoto rarely says it, the film implies how draining this perennial tide of emotional labor can be. Nemoto’s friends talk and talk in neverending circles of anxious rambling, and Nemoto nods his head and reminds someone of a reason to live, again, and again, and again, and again. Whether in person, via text, email or on a phone call late at night or in the wee hours of the morning, Nemoto cathects onto these people’s troubles without hesitation.
Sometimes Nemoto acquiesces, and says “I know this may not be helping,” other times he just listens for minutes of end without saying a word, aware that his listening itself may ease someone’s suffering. Sometimes, he even holds a slumber party-style event for a few people. They sing karaoke and dance to pop music, and Nemoto joins in.
Nemoto’s few moments away from work consist primarily of three activities: playing with his joyful three year-old son Teppei, getting medical check-ups for his severely clogged arteries, and listening to his wife tell him he needs to take care of himself before he can support others. Nemoto’s health is indeed in abysmal shape, the unrelenting emotional stress of his work has exacerbated the situation, and he could have a heart attack any time. He also drinks sake everyday. To function as a priest, father, and husband (in that order), Nemoto does his best to bottle up a profound fatigue that still permeates the fabric of the film. Director Lana Wilson, editor David Wilson, and his wife (who often labors as Nemoto’s own Nemoto) all seem aware of it. Gradually, as the film progresses, Nemoto takes small but significant steps to put himself first.
Cinematographer Emily Topper maintains a poetic visual language akin to feature films, and Nemoto’s solo visit to nightclub is testament to how even in documentary, the camera can imbibe the image with an idea. Wilson and Teague pull off a tremendous feat in giving us a sense of Nemoto’s daily life and it’s penetrating effect on him. At the end of The Departure, we see Nemoto performing the post-it exercise himself, and his final post-it reveals something about the priest he could never say at work.
After the screening at the Tribeca film festival, Nemoto, his translator, Wilson, and Teague came on stage for a brief Q & A. You can find the transcript below:
[To Nemoto] How do you work with people who feel suicidal because of systemic problems, such as debt or unemployment?
Ittetsu Nemoto: Unlike in the US, Japan doesn’t have as effective means to deal with these problems on an institutional level. These situations exist because of a hierarchical relationship between people and institutions. I approach these people as equals, and that’s all that you can do.
[To Wilson] How did you first hear about Nemoto’s practice?
Lana Wilson: I actually read about Nemoto’s work in an article in The New Yorker. So I contacted him, travelled to Japan for a meeting, and after we became acquainted, he was generous enough to let me film him eight or nine times over the course of two years
[To a Nemoto & Wilson] How did the film achieve such intimate access to the sessions between Nemoto and the people he counsels?
Nemoto: Lana was very respectful of people’s space, as was her crew. So it was possible for them to be present for such moments.
Wilson: It actually helped that I didn’t speak Japanese. Often when our translator was in the room the subjects felt uncomfortable. But they felt more secure with the presence of only myself and the cinematographer.
[To Teague & Wilson] The subject matter of the film is so sad, yet it isn’t crushing, and there are often lighter moments. How did you approach the task of creating that balance?
David Teague: Yeah that’s definitely something we talk about a lot. And we took our cue from Nemoto and some of his ideas. It’s not really a plot-driven film so we were more interested in some of the emotions and ideas we could communicate as build through it. And Nemoto’s idea that you’re not gonna be able to save someone, or fix depression, or fix sadness, but what you can do is embrace it as a part of life, and look to the beauty and joy of life. And that you actually appreciate a moe profound and stronger sense of joy once you acknowledge sadness and depression. We really wanted to play around with that structurally in the film, and build from harder moments that are followed by lighter moments, particular in Nemoto’s temple, which has a serene beauty. [Nemoto’s three year-old son] Teppei certainly gave us the opportunity to show life, and joy, and energy. And so, we were very careful about when those were placed. Like in the scene where the woman talks about losing her sister to a train collision That was intentionally juxtaposed with a scene of Teppei and Nemoto connecting. And we tried to do that throughout the film.
Wilson: Yeah our take on it was that it’s a film about death in a lot of ways, but it’s using death to understand how to live. So we embraced that perspective throughout the editing process.