Place: New York

Meditation of Life

Art Categories:  Film, Movie

A fascinating and profound new documentary “The Departure,” directed by Lana Wilson who stunned America with her 2013 film “After Tiller”, had its World Premiere at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. In the film’s opening sequence, a man dances until dawn in the emphatic music and laser light of a club. Then he motorbikes to a temple surrounded by rice fields, where, among several people who have gathered there, he conducts an exercise called ‘the departure’, which attempts to sensibly explain what death is. This man is Ittetsu Nemoto, the subject of the film and the chief priest of Daizen Temple in Seki, in Japan’s Gifu prefecture.


While maintaining his discipline as a priest, Mr. Nemoto tirelessly counsels people who have suicidal tendencies to look for the meaning to live together. Sometimes he meets and talks with a particular person one-on-one, and sometimes he organizes group retreats where he leads theater games that allow people to explore without language. Just as the atmosphere becomes stagnant when there is no wind, our hearts become fogged when we are stuck with unfathomable feelings. Since Japan has high suicide rates, the voices that call Mr. Nemoto for help seem to be endless. Consequently, his restless dedication work, in which he takes on the agonies of countless people, eventually leads him to harm his own health. While the film captures Mr. Nemoto facing his own mortality as he harmonizes with his beloved wife and young son Teppei, it also presents various notions about life and death from many different points of view.


Everything in nature dies. However, our society tends to judge that it’s imprudent to talk about death, or even to be aware of it. But despite that current, “The Departure” allows us to look at death fearlessly. Perhaps looking at it is like connecting one point to another. Being conscious about our limited time and life can make us realize the important things in us. Life, ultimately, is made up of both living and dying; they are connected and must be considered together. So by once again connecting death, which is so often covered up, with living, perhaps we can regain an original sense of the whole of life.



COOL sat with Lana Wilson and Ittetsu Nemoto during their visit to the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival.


How we want to live and how we want to die are deeply connected


How did you discover Nemoto-san?

Lana: I read a New Yorker article about him, and I immediately thought he was fascinating. But I wondered especially what he says to people considering ending their lives to convince them to keeping living. I was so curious about those conversations; I realized I wanted to be in the room to hear them. The article briefly described the departure exercise that you see in the film. It said that he has a death workshop where he has people role-play, imagine their own deaths and pull the white cloths over their faces, and emotionally try to experience dying. I immediately thought that could be an incredibly cinematic thing to film that would give the audience an experience they could participate in by playing along with the exercise too.


How did you get involved with this documentary film project?

Ittetsu: I asked what’s the project’s purpose and what is its reach, but Lana never answered. And I liked it. People have preconceptions about suicide, so the media has ideas about what to shoot, but she is a filmmaker who starts to work on the film after seeing everything, so I thought she was the right person.


How long did you follow Nemoto-san?

Lana: I came first without a camera just to meet him, and I met some other priests who also do suicide prevention, so kind of a research trip. And then I filmed seven or eight times over two years, for two-to-four weeks every time.


The film shows photos of Nemoto-san growing up, and now and then, it seems like people want to hang out with him, and I’m sure you were with him a lot. Could you tell me what it’s like to be with him?

Participants in a retreat led by Ittetsu Nemoto

Lana: It’s great. He’s very chill. What’s amazing to me about him, from hanging out with him so much, is that although he is so, so busy—I mean, you see his planner in the movie, he’s just running from one thing to another—wherever he is, whether he’s counseling someone, or whether he’s playing with his son, he’s completely in the moment, there, and present, even though he has so many things to do. That’s something I wish I could do better. I’m just anxious when there’s a bunch of stuff coming up, and I’m always thinking ahead or regretting what just happened. And he is so there, at every moment, despite the madness of his schedule.


You were having a reckless life when you were younger but changed your way of living after having a serious motorbike accident. Could you describe how your feelings changed?

Ittetsu: I was simply glad that I was alive. I believe that people who had a serious illness would think the same. If I die now, even though so many people supported me, I would waste my life without repaying their kindness. I thought I was given another chance, both when I had the motorbike accident and the heart problem this time. I only have appreciation. And I feel like the problems I was carrying seem small.


What does death mean to you?

Ittetsu: Even though death is a big event in life, there is a tendency in society that thinking about death is a taboo. However, I believe that how we want to live and how we want to die are deeply connected. That’s why Buddha must have been experimenting with his body. We could still live after dying, so it’s impossible to separate death from life.


For me, they are comrades who walk ahead in the same direction


Could you tell me how and when you began meeting with people who have suicidal desires?

Ittetsu Nemoto at Tribeca Film Festival

Ittetsu: After leaving my office job, I became a priest. I was spending time everyday away from society, cooking food with firewood, while practicing Zen riddles called ‘Koan-zen,’ and we are not allowed to speak. And then, while I was serving him, my master passed away. So, I decided to go back to society and began working at a burger shop part-time. I was doing the same job when I was in high school, so I wanted to try it in order to know how I’ve changed. Everyday was fascinating. While working there, the shop manager started to ask me advice, I was counseling the employees there.



There were many students from outside Tokyo working at the burger shop who were worried about their future. I once left the society then came back to it again to learn, and again I’m working the same part-time job, and since they, who were going to take part in the society, didn’t have anyone who had that kind of unique background, they asked me for advice a lot. They also had gotten into a rut, so they only had two or three choices for their future. But that’s a process we pretty much all go through. So people who have passed it would understand, but some of the students got depressed because they didn’t know how to solve what they were facing.


Additionally, the briquette suicides were going around that time. So I visited the very spot where people were about to commit suicide with briquettes. I thought they would refuse me, but unexpectedly they were happy to talk to me like, “Thank you for asking.”  They had gathered together to die, but promised that we could all meet again. I searched for the meaning to live with them by witnessing them change.


I think that the film could have been really depressing because of the heavy issue, so were you conscious about making it to be not so depressing?

Lana: Once it became clear that Nemoto-san has so many aspects of his personality—that he loves going clubbing, he loves music, he loves art, all these sides of him that are just all about life, and once we started filming a little more with the family, it just became so clear that Teppei-kun could represent life in the film. It was such a joy to be at the temple with him.


Yes, you meet people who are at a very low point, but often they leave feeling better and laughing. So I thought there was humor and life, and he does so many fun things with people. It isn’t just this serious, grave counseling. From the beginning I saw so many opportunities for humor and beauty and making the film as experiential as possible, so that when you’re watching it, you’re experiencing all these wonderful things about life too. And it’s structured so that we alternate the heaviest, most intense parts with the most joyful, life-giving moments.


You said in your film that you “have sympathy” towards people with suicide wish. What aspect of them do you sympathize with?

Ittetsu: There is a practice that you continue to sit in Zen meditation for eight days, and after coming back from it, many things seem ridiculous. For example, like getting angry about something that you hear from someone else as if you experienced it, and making all sorts of complaints about what you see and hear on TV and in newspapers. But people who want to die talk about something they are actually experiencing. There is only truth in it. And there is struggle in it, in order to look for themselves and make their lives better. It’s moving to be present at the very process in which they try to search for a glimpse of light in the darkness. For me, they are comrades who walk ahead in the same direction.


So they are supporting you too.

Ittetsu: Exactly. I as well ask them for advice, too. Actually, there are many elite people who consider suicide because unexpected things happen aside from their plans. So, when they encounter irrational things, they can’t accept them, and the more you are capable, the more you try to solve it by yourself. However, when someone like me, who is different from them, gets involved in their lives, they realize and overcome. It’s grateful to see them realize, and there are so many things that I learn from them.


There are many fascinating scenes such as the ‘departure’ exercise and the theater games. Also, Nemoto-san says very interesting things. Can you talk about any moments that fascinated you while filming?

Lana Wilson at Tribeca Film Festival

Lana: One of my favorite shots of the film was the shot with all the work on Nemoto-san’s desk and Teppei just running in circles screaming around him. For me, that image says it all.


One of the most fascinating moments for me, and I didn’t understand what was being said at the time, but I knew it was something really profound and special, was when he talks to this woman towards the end of the film, the woman whose sister committed suicide by jumping in front of the train. I could just tell that something was happening. She’s really looking into herself, but then Nemoto-san is also so vulnerable and open with her. He’s lost to suicide, she’s thinking about her sister, and I love how she gives him this advice, and then says you don’t need to find the answer to the question.


We all have these huge questions about life, whether or not we’re suicidal, humans always struggle with this stuff. And in the end, there’s no answer to them, they lead to more questions, but the questions are partially answered by the richness and complexity of that journey.



It’s a good idea to die once


How did you create the ‘departure’ exercise?

Ittetsu: There is this thing called “death education.” So I arrange, and people imagine along with my stories. And now, I have the evolved version of it called “vision map.”  You cut pictures from magazines and put them on the wall, in order to not forget the images you had at time. Thus, the exercises I present get updates.


In the “departure” exercise, people who think that they have to do this and that and can’t do this and that try to find what’s important in their life, along with my story, in order to reduce the things that they are carrying. It’s easy to add up, but it’s difficult to trim down. But this exercise is very effective. And we can do this exercise with a big group, so it could be fun. I’m hoping for them to have precious friends with whom they can talk about anything through the exercise.


There is an improvisation theater game in the film. What happens to our hearts when we touch the arts?

Ittetsu Nemoto (right) with a participant in one of his retreats

Ittetsu: We don’t use language in the theater game. We communicate without language. We use different senses from what you do in everyday life, so I would like to support people to reset their everyday mode. Actually, it’s similar to sitting in Zen meditation and invocation. So, using different senses can allow you to realize something.


The concept of killing by one’s own will is something you explored in “After Tiller” as well. What does that speak to you? Or do you have strong fascination towards it?

Lana: I’m definitely interested in these subjects about life and death, and those big questions. Perhaps more, for me, the connection between the two films was about extreme altruism, in a way. People like the doctors in that film, or Nemoto-san who want to do so much good, but doing that kind of work can also take a toll on them, an emotional toll. Someone had to point this out to me, but the first line of “After Tiller” is Dr. Tiller saying I would rather have a short life that’s emotionally and spiritually rewarding and where I do a lot of good for people, rather than have a long life that’s mediocrity, where you don’t make a difference. And Nemoto-san says the exact same thing in this film. I was like, wow! I think, unconsciously, I was drawn to people trying to have the biggest impact possible with their lives, and wanting to help other people so much, and being so good at it, but also needing to take care of themselves a little bit too.


In 2014, the WHO reported that in 2012 people committed suicide every 40 seconds. People with low income and the elderly are the majority, but young people 15 – 29 years old are increasing. What do you see here?

Lana: I see escalating pressures from all sides on people who are alive today. And I think it’s largely economic events. After the economy collapsed in Japan in the ’90s, there was a huge skyrocket in the suicide rate, and the same thing happened globally and in the US after the 2008 financial crash. So that’s a big part of it, these huge social and economic forces that trickle down into people’s psychologies. But the bottom line, I think too, is we’re always told, “Be happy, be happy, be happy!” and that in itself can be quite suffocating. Like Nemoto-san says in the lecture scene early on in the film, people keep saying they have no hope, well, let’s create the hope here. It’s not something that’s just going to land on you; you have to build a reason to keep going and something to want to live for.


Yeah. “Be happy” is pressure. I hope can be created together too.

Lana: Yeah, it is pressure, and I think constantly comparing yourself to other people who seem happy—and maybe social media has made this worse in some ways—we’re just seeing all these pictures and images of people, and their delicious food and their fabulous lives and their marriages and babies and whatever, because that’s what that forum is mostly for, and I think it makes people feel even worse, even though that’s not a real person. That’s just an image they’re projecting outward. That has created more unhappiness and suffering in some ways.


The phrase “creating hope together” is memorable. The world now has been suffocating, but would you like to tell people who live today?

Ittetsu: It’s a good idea to die once. If you don’t want to die, you just have to live thoroughly. My master used to say, “Die once, then you will never die again.” People who have a death wish are, in a way, thoroughly dead. They are dead as if their sense of value, which they have cultivated in society, seems worthless. Nothing can be created if you are in that circumstance. Therefore, if it’s impossible for you to keep living, you die once. There is that choice, to live.



Text & Interview by Taiyo Okamoto

Image courtesy of Drifting Cloud Productions


The 2017 Tribeca Film Festival Official Website