Directed By: Lana Wilson
“The Departure” is a potent documentary about a former rebellious rocker turned Zen priest who spends his days helping depressed people on the verge of committing suicide. Working for a decade in the suicide prevention, Tokyo-native Ittetsu Nemoto leads with confidence one of his famous retreat sessions known in Japan as The Departure. He urges the attendants to think of what they will leave behind if they follow their suicidal thoughts, in a clear attempt to find remnants of hope in the emptiness of their anguished souls. As a considerate counselor and a great listener, he makes them feel less lonely by reinforcing that fear is a road we’ve all traveled at some point. Reacting to the irrationality of living (being born to struggle until the time of our death), he also encourages people to express themselves through art in order to find some relief. However, this is not always the case with the people who seek him.
Nemoto lives in a temple located in the countryside with his wife, Yukiko, the nurse who took care of him after a serious motorcycle accident when he was 24, their little son, Teppei, whom he barely sees due to a busy schedule, and his helpful mother, who worries about his health.
It’s truly honorable what this priest does for the sake of others, but he keeps forgetting of himself and his own needs. His mission seems to be more important than anything that can happen to him, however, he’s getting weaker, stressed, and vulnerable since most of his energy is consumed by his patients, who, in turn, pass him their sufferings. Furthermore, the 24/7 availability takes his sleep away, with phone calls, emails, and text messages arriving in the middle of the night.
Emmy-award winning director, Lana Wilson (“After Tiller”), intersperses Nemoto’s medical condition - he suffered a heart attack in the past and now faces the real danger of clogged arteries - with several suicidal cases of people who remain in treatment with him, including a man who cannot bear not to see his kids, a young girl who is anxious and uncertain about the future, a man with 30 years of drug addiction, and a middle-aged woman whose sadness is endless. Serene and unhesitating, our hero refuses to give up on them.
Besides focusing on the grandiose altruism and compassion of its protagonist with a lyric simplicity, what the film actually questions is utterly complex: how can this man take care of other people when he is not taking care of himself? Would he feel better after leaving the patients at the mercy of their own miseries? What will happen to him if he continues with such an exhausting lifestyle?
This is what keeps revolving in our heads throughout a meditative film that treats both dejection and encouragement with the same quiet impartiality. Sometimes hope turns into light, other times it’s the despondency that brings us down.
“The Departure”, sliding with a deliberate melancholy toward the painful reality that concludes its story, benefits from the competent editing by David Teague. Nonetheless, better the subject matter than the technical aspects.