“The goal is for you to experience ‘departure,’ ” Rinzai Zen monk Ittetsu Nemoto tells the visitors to his temple in rural Japan early in The Departure. “Today, we’re holding this retreat for you to find out what it means to die.” Lana Wilson’s follow-up to the deeply empathetic documentary After Tiller (a survey of the work and patients of the few American doctors left performing late-term abortions, co-directed with Martha Shane) is another intimate, clear-eyed study of people facing the hardest of choices — in this case, the decision to continue to live.
In The Departure’s urgently moving first scenes, following an introduction to its 44-year-old protagonist dancing in nightclubs and tooling around on his motorcycle, we see Nemoto guide a handful of suicidal adults back toward life. His techniques fascinate: He tasks everyone with writing down on slips of paper three things they love in life, then the names of three people they’re close to, and then three things they would like to do but haven’t yet. (Wilson’s cameras catch what some of them have written, translated in subtitles from Japanese: “Eating delicious food.” “Body.” “Love.” “Travel the whole world.”)
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Then Nemoto tasks them with crumpling up and discarding three of the slips. And then three more. And then two more, so that there’s just one left.
Then he asks them to crumple this, too. Some of the attendees weep. This is what it means to die, to lose all of this. Soon, we see Nemoto’s charges lying on the floor in the dark, towels over their faces, while he tolls a bell. He’s immersing them in the void. Later, Wilson will show us Nemoto’s continued individual work with the suicidal, speaking to them casually, always listening closely, laughing with them about their shared experiences. One father says that the hardest nights, the nights he most wants to die, come when it’s his turn to care for the sons he has lost custody of; he knows that that moment is the longest period before he’ll have time with his sons again. Nemoto nods, sips some sake and speaks of his own failings as a father: He drinks too much, he’s too often away from his child as he’s helping the despondent. Finally, he points out how heartbroken the sons of the suicidal man would be to have no father at all. The father cries.
Nemoto gets texts: “I want to die,” reads a typical message. We see him sitting in his pickup truck, speaking patiently with a woman on his cellphone. He reminds them of the lessons of his retreat, and eventually she admits, with relief, “I do want to keep seeing the cherry blossoms every year."
Between these scenes of raw connection, all shot as if the participants long ago stopped noticing the cameras, Wilson offers meditative glimpses of Nemoto and his family living their lives. Some are evocative: His toddler son slides doors open and closed, making the world appear and disappear. Nemoto, we learn, is facing a health crisis and has hard choices of his own to make. Wilson’s film, a quiet wonder, emphasizes the courage it takes to choose the hard work of living.