Poster from The Departure

The Departure poster

What if individuals were given the chance to experience death before dying? What if the sensation of losing yourself became so profound there was nothing left to feel or love in the world? What would happen if there were a death trial run that had a stronger effect than a near-death experience and had a greater effect than any video stimulation or medical stimulations could? In filmmaker Lana Wilson’s latest documentary, The Departure, she follows Buddhist-priest Ittetsu Nemoto on his career of helping suicidal people find reasons to live. Giving answer to the question that creeps into everyone’s existence: “What is the point of life?” Nemoto’s journey helps others ask: “What makes life worth living?” Guiding suicidal people on the path of finding their will to live, Nemoto is searching for his own answers in life. Everyone in this film is on a journey of trying to understand life and death.

Head shot of Lana Wilson

Lana Wilson

In The Departure, director Wilson follows Nemoto’s experiences dealing not only with people full of life, but at living people who feel dead inside. Life and death are not black and white. Living and breathing is a physical sign of life, but tell nothing beyond that. Nemoto works with individuals who are suicidal and depressed and wish to be physically dead physically match their mindsets. The journey of Nemoto is all-consuming. His expends all of his energy breathing life back into others so often he forgets to breathe himself. But helping others brings Nemoto joy. Throughout the movie, his journey becomes challenging as Nemoto comes to harsh realizations that his only form of joy is stemming from others and giving them what they need, but is failing to pay attention to what he needs in his personal life. The famous quote by American motivational author Zig Ziglar perfectly captures what the audience learns from Nemoto while watching how he treats others versus how he treats himself, “Until you are happy with who you are, you will never be happy with what you have.”

This film begins with a club scene full of harsh, neon lights, loud music, and what can only be a room full of drunks. This scene first introduces the main character, Nemoto. Knowing that this film is set in Japan focusing on a Buddhist priest, the choice of an opening scene like this initially is thrilling, but confusing as to the context of it all. While watching the film and hearing voiceover of Nemoto’s past, we find out he was a bad child and a bad young adult, paralleling what we see in the opening club scene. All he would do was go out, drink and wander. He and his friends refer to themselves as “the midnight wanderers.” Going from party boy to monk, that opening scene is phenomenal in showing the stark contrast of the two lifestyles he has lived.

The film takes its title from what Nemoto calls his counseling experience, “The Departure.” This experience is all a game of values. Each individual discovers his or her true values in life and learns the reason each is currently choosing to stay alive.

Each is alive, but not actually “living” life. Through counseling, Nemoto makes it clear what each person risks losing and what each person’s loved one risks losing if the person chooses to leave the world. Nemoto teaches his students that when one looks deeply enough at his or her personal values, it helps create a better understanding of that individual’s purpose and role in this world.

The Departure scene

Scene from The Departure

Following “The Departure” exercise, the film continues to follow several different individual’s stories and experiences with wishing to die. Counseling one suicidal person to the next by making in-home visits, always being available for contact and holding retreats and meditation sessions, Nemoto exerts his energies and livelihood to everyone except himself. His own work is increasingly harming his physical health as he becomes more ill thorough the film and his own mental health begin to waiver. Ignoring the signs that he is at high risk for an additional heart attack and on the brink of a mental breakdown, Nemoto struggles trying to learn that he needs as much care as he gives every other individual that comes to him for help.

Senior programmer for the Tribeca Film Festival, Cara Cusumano, described Nemoto’s personal journey through helping others.“The Departure is an intimate portrait of one quietly extraordinary man who has helped so many learn to live, and now must find the strength to learn from his own advice.”

The journey Nemoto takes grows into the unimaginable as the film progresses, teaching that self-compassion is of utmost importance before being able to successfully help others. There is no answer to the question of what makes life worth living, but Wilson beautifully shows that humans need love and support—and that even those that appear strongest may need the most support.

About Laura Harris