J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The Departure: Monk, Rocker, and Angel of Mercy

Ittetsu Nemoto is the of the Zen Buddhist equivalent of Clarence the Angel from It’s a Wonderful Life, but he has a much heavier case load. In the therapeutic ritual he developed, “The Departure,” clients are invited to envision their own deaths. Nemoto has an admirably high survival rate, but it is unclear how long much longer he can endure the pace and pressure of his counseling practice. Viewers will observe Nemoto taking years off his own life as he saves others in Lana Wilson’s The Departure (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Nemoto is also much like the punker turned Buddhist priest protagonist of Naoki Katô’s Abraxas, except he is the real deal. When we first meet Nemoto, he is seeking the solace of the void in the heavy electronica music of a late-night dance club. That is where he goes when he needs to turn off his head, but the clubbing environment on top of the stress and strain of his suicide prevention work is taking a toll.

We watch Nemoto cajole and console his clients, both in person and over the phone. Frankly, he never seems particularly eloquent or deep, but it is his earnest commitment that seems to resonate with clients. Yet, the spiritual energy he consumes as part of his intervention work often leaves him tired and distant with his wife and their young son. Although the situation is not yet completely dire, Nemoto’s persistent health issues are forcing his to consider his own potential death, while he labors to convince others to say yes to life.

Like many docs that eschew narration and talking head interviews, the pace of The Departure feels a little slow at times. However, Wilson captures some remarkable images. Throughout it all, Nemoto remains a deeply compelling character. He is a priest, not a saint, but his dedication and empathy appear to be limited only by his own physical and emotional endurance.

Departure does not end with a climatic crisis, which is probably a good thing for Nemoto and his clients, but Wilson still skillfully uses one of Nemoto’s signature ceremonies to build to an emotional climax. As documentary profiles go, it is downright immersive at times. An inspiring snapshot of Zen Buddhism in action, The Departure is highly recommended for mindfulness audiences when it opens this Friday (10/13) in New York, at the Metrograph.

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