Teaching the Hero’s Journey of Internal Growth Using a Foreign Film

SUBJECTS — World/Other Cultures: Japan; Literature/the Hero’s Journey;

SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL LEARNING — Grieving; Families in Crisis;


AGE: 14+; MPAA Rating: PG-13 for thematic material;

2008 ; Drama; 130 Minutes; Color. Available from The Japanese name for the film is “Okuburito.”

Daigo’s father abandoned the family when Daigo was only six. The story of Daigo’s journey to resolve his feelings about his father fits the paradigm of “the Hero’s Journey”, also called “the Monomyth”, a concept based on the discoveries of Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell. The stages and archetypes of the Journey are summarized in TWM’s Stages and Archetypes of the Hero’s Journey — Introducing the Monomyth.

TWM has also created a Hero’s Journey Worksheet to help students identify the stages and archetypes in any story in which the protagonist successfully completes an important quest. This Lesson Plan provides notes on responses when the worksheet is applied to Daigo’s journey in “Departures.” The Lesson Plan also contains suggested assignments.

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In this beautiful film Daigo, a young married man, is a moderately talented cellist working in a classical orchestra. Daigo’s mother has died. His father abandoned the family when Daigo was six, leaving only a stone message, vague memories, and tremendous feelings of loss and anger. Daigo had started playing the cello as a young boy at his father’s request. As the movie opens, the orchestra goes out of business and Daigo realizes that he is not talented enough to find work again as a cellist. He sells his cello and moves with his wife back to his home town to live in the house in which he was raised. It was from this house that his father departed when he left the family.

Daigo applies for a job advertised as “assisting departures for an NK agency.” He thinks he is applying for work at a travel agency and is unaware that the job involves “encoffinment,” a ceremonial preparation of the dead before cremation. Through the rest of the story Daigo struggles to reconcile with his memories of his father. The story is interesting and the ending, while predictable, is sublime.


Selected Awards: 2009 Academy Awards: Best Foreign Film of the Year and numerous other awards and commendations.

Featured Actors: Masahiro Motoki as Daigo Kobayashi; Tsutomu Yamazaki as Ikuei Sasaki; Ryoko Hirosue as Mika Kobayashi; Kazuko Yoshiyuki as Tsuyako Yamashita; Kimiko Yo as Yuriko Kamimura; Takashi Sasano as Shokichi Hirata; Tetta Sugimoto as Yamashita

Director: Yôjirô Takita.


Stories told on screens are the literature of today’s youth. Students will have an extra quantum of interest in applying the concept of the Hero’s Journey and performing related ELA assignments with respect to a profoundly moving film. The Monomyth is a basic paradigm of human experience that is frequently used in written stories, drama, and film. Viewing stories involving a successful and important quest in different contexts will expand and deepen students’ understanding of the role of the Hero’s Journey in fiction and in life. By understanding the elements of the Journey, students will be better prepared to identify protagonist, antagonist, conflict, theme, and symbol.

Introducing students to the customs of other cultures and allowing them to identify with the characters in a foreign film will increase students’ empathy for persons from other countries.



The movie is uplifting but there are sad moments and viewers will cry. Have a box of tissues available and refer to it in your introduction to the film.



The introductory comments set out below will enrich students’ experience of watching the film.

There is a scene in the film showing salmon swimming upstream to spawn. Salmon are born in freshwater streams but spend most of their lives in the ocean. Every year salmon return to the stream in which they were born, spawn, and then die, turning gray or white in the process. It is not an unusual site to see salmon vigorously swimming up-stream while the corpses of salmon who have already spawned and are now dead float downstream in the current.

In another scene, the characters eat Puffer Roe. This is a delicacy in Japan and if it is not prepared properly it contains a deadly poison. Many people have died from eating improperly prepared Puffer Roe.

There is a tradition in Japan of people using public baths. This started in the time when they did not have showers in their homes.

The role of shame is very strong in Japanese culture, in fact, it is said to be its main source of social control.

This movie shows some sad times. Many people, including men, feel strong emotions and their eyes tear up when they watch this film. Feel free to take a tissue if you need it. Never apologize for tears. Crying is a sign of a strong and open heart, especially in men.

End of suggested introductory comments.


Once the students are aware of the concept of The Hero’s Journey and its accompanying archetypes, see student handout Stages and Archetypes of the Hero’s Journey — Introducing the Monomyth, they can apply the various stages of the journey to the pattern of internal growth that is experienced by the protagonist in “Departures”

Distribute the Worksheet on The Hero’s Journey. Tell students that while the film does not contain all aspects of the classic Hero’s Journey, most of the elements are clearly present and several of the archetypes appear in the story. Instruct students to make brief notes while they are watching the film and that they will be given an opportunity to complete the worksheet after the film is over. Either before or after students have completed their worksheets, hold a class discussion on the stages of the Hero’s Journey and its archetypes shown in the film.


The notes below will assist teachers in leading class discussions and evaluating written responses to the discussion prompts. Most questions on the worksheet have no single correct answer. An acceptable response will be any answer which is supported by facts and reveals that the student is thinking about the story.

I. Write a short one-paragraph description of the quest described in this story. Daigo’s journey is to find closure for the feelings of loss and abandonment that he suffered when his father deserted the family. Daigo moves from trying to please his father in the same way that he did as a child, by trying to excel at the instrument that his father wanted him to play, to feelings of loss and of anger at his father for having abandoned Daigo and his mother, and finally to acceptance and closure, allowing Daigo to lovingly prepare his father’s body for cremation.

II. For each stage of the Hero’s Journey describe the action of the film, if any, which manifests that stage. Be specific about the stage and the corresponding actions.

1. The Ordinary World — Daigo’s father had wanted his son to play the cello. When his father left home, Daigo could have rejected the memory of this father and stopped playing the instrument. Instead, Daigo buried his feelings of anger and tried to please his father by continuing to play; the child hoped that if his father returned, his father would be pleased that his son excelled at the instrument. As the movie opens, Daigo’s ordinary world is one in which even as an adult, he has suppressed his feelings of anger and is still playing the cello, trying to please his father. Daigo does his best at the cello and goes so far as to secretly buys a very expensive instrument to maximize his chances of pleasing his father.

2. The Call to Adventure — Daigo is called to his adventure involuntarily when he realizes that despite his expensive cello, his talents are moderate and that he’ll not be able to find another job in an orchestra. When Daigo decides that he can no longer make a living as a cellist, he must let go of his childish hopes and find a new way to relate to his father. Daigo’s feelings of anger toward his father start to emerge. Daigo’s effort to find a new way to relate to his father is the Hero’s Journey in this story.

3. Refusal of the Call — Usually, Refusal of the Call comes right after the Call to Adventure but in this movie, the refusal comes late in the story. It occurs when Daigo is first informed that his father has died and, initially, refuses the entreaties of his wife and the secretary at the agency to go to the village where his father has died to view the corpse and perhaps come to reconciliation. When this is proposed, Daigo runs out of the office and down the street.

4. Meeting with the Mentor — Shoei Sadask, Daigo’s boss, teaches him respect for life and death in the process of encoffinment. The meeting with the mentor occurs when Daigo interviews for the job.

5. Crossing the First Threshold — Daigo’s first threshold is the job tending to an old woman whose body had not been discovered for two weeks. After working with the body, vomiting in the process, Daigo bathes and has clearly passed through a threshold. It is not apparent until later, why he would agree to continue with the job. The money is one reason. Certainly by the time that he goes to the first full enconfinment, the ceremony for Naomi, he feels the positive power of encoffinment. Perhaps he senses what it will mean to him in his own life.

6. Tests, Allies and Enemies — Daigo is tested several times, most dramatically when his wife tells him that she will leave him if he does not quit the job. Allies are found several places in Daigo’s experience. The secretary is an ally, as is the woman who runs the bath house, Tsuyako. A significant enemy is Daigo’s boyhood friend who tells Daigo that he should quit that repulsive job.

7. Approach to the Inmost Cave — The approach to the inmost cave occurs when Daigo finds himself at the side of his father’s corpse.

8. Ordeal — Daigo’s ordeal occurs when the undertakers start to put his father in a coffin without the proper and respectful ceremony. Daigo’s quest is an internal one and the crisis is in coming to resolution with his feelings for his father. These are exemplified in making the decision to care for his father’s body in a loving manner.

9. Reward — Daigo’s reward is the freedom from the anger and pain associated with memories of his father. His reward is made manifest in the “stone letter” Daigo finds in the death-clenched fist. Daigo felt both forgiveness and love and giving the stone to his pregnant wife.

10. The Road Back: — There Road Back for Daigo is in performing the ceremony on his father’s body. Since his quest was for personal growth, he does not need to return to his former Ordinary World. He is now living in a new world of emotional maturity.

11. Resurrection — Daigo is reborn when in the process of tending to his father’s body he begins to see the man’s face from long ago when father and son were together on a beach and they had exchanged stone letters. The face comes clear to Daigo, thus suggesting that the pain associated with his memories of his father has eased.

12. Returned home with the Elixir —The Elixir, the awareness of the value of sending the dead on their way with dignity and beauty, is passed to Diego’s wife and to the viewers of the film.


III. Identify the archetypes of the Hero’s Journey that appear in the movie and, for each, describe the function it performs in telling the film’s story.

1. Hero: — Daigo is the hero; his journey is personal in that on an unconscious level he is seeking release from the pain caused by being abandoned by his father as a child.

2. Mentor — Daigo’s boss, Shoei Sasaki, serves as his main mentor. He introduces Daigo to the insights about life and death which are necessary to his journey. Several times Mr. Sasaki refers to Daigo’s fate, stressing that the older man is in touch with the truth and will impart it to Daigo. His personal office is full of plants and life which indicates that he has found the way to live.

3. Threshold Guardian: — Daigo’s wife is a threshold guardian, although in keeping with her temperament, she is very mild. Several times she seeks to dissuade Daigo from continuing with his quest.

4. Herald: — The Herald for Daigo is Yurriko, who works as secretary in the NK office. She tells Daigo that he will do well in his new line of work and later pleads with him to tend to his dead father.

5. Shapeshifter — Sasaki, Daigo’s employer, shifts from his focus on death during the process of encoffinment to the epicure who is surrounded by plants and relishes his food. In shifting from tending to death to nurturing life, the man shifts shape. The room in which he takes his meals, with its lush plant life, contrasts to the business-like décor of his office in which three coffins stand against the wall.

6. Shadow — Daigo’s Shadow side is the immature and incomplete resolution of his contradictory feelings about his father that held him in their sway when the movie opened.

7. Trickster: — The mentor, Sasaki, can be seen as a trickster in the scene in which Daigo must act as a dead body while a film is being made of the process of encoffinment. He has clearly tricked Daigo into a very disturbing role the result of which will provoke Diego’s wife to leave him

IV. Describe any other other archetypes that appear in the story and the functions they perform.

Daigo’s wife appears to have many of the attributes of the maiden; she is a pure and loving soul.

Students may have other ideas about what constitutes archetypes in “Departures.” As Campbell and Jung say, there are many archetypes and one should not be bound to a list presented or a perspective that may not apply to a particular story.


Some students, especially boys, when they watch a deeply moving film, will not be able to handle the fact that they are feeling strong emotions and even tearing up a bit. To cover their embarrassment, they may make comments or try to crack a joke that destroys the mood created by the film. The last comment in the introduction is designed to give permission to students, particularly boys, to feel the emotions, allowing them to more fully appreciate the film and preventing any extraneous remarks. Have a box of tissues available for the students when showing this film.


  • ELA teachers can also make use of the opportunity to point out the use of flashback, symbol, and motif.
  • Flashback: Most of the first half of the film is a flashback.
  • Symbol: The musical theme frequently played on a cello, is a symbol for Daigo’s father, who loved the music and wanted his son to play the cello. The expensive cello that Daigo bought without telling his wife is symbolic of the amount that Daigo cherishes the dream that his father will return and be proud of the fact that Daigo played the cello. The salmon, some swimming upstream, some corpses dead and floating downstream, are a symbol for the natural condition of life and death. The inability of Daigo to save the octopus is a symbol of his inability to continue with the old way in which he had organized his life, i.e., trying to please his absent father by playing the cello. Daigo’s return to his childhood home is an emotional return to the place where his father abandoned him enabling Daigo to deal with the pain of that abandonment in a new way. The geese are a symbol of freedom and life.
  • Motif: The geese are a symbol that recurs several times in the movie. The stone letters are a motif. The recurring music that Daigo’s father liked is a motif. The contrast between life and death is also a motif.

The film is based on the novel Coffinman by Shinmon Aoki.


See Assignments, Projects, and Activities for Use With any Film that is a Work of Fiction.


1. Students can be assigned to research and write essays on the following topics:

  • The Japanese concept of encoffinment;
  • Funeral rituals from cultures represented in the demographics of the classroom;
  • Historic patterns of burial;
  • Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s stages of grieving;
  • The kinds of music used in traditional and non-traditional funerals;
  • The cello’s use in provoking feeling;
  • Coffins used in various world cultures;
  • Concepts of death as promulgated in various religious beliefs;
  • Concepts of reincarnation; and
  • Poetry addressing death, such as Thanatopsis by William Cullen Bryant, which illustrates varying points of view.

2. Several elements in the film serve to affirm life and are in contrast with the focus on death. Write a paragraph, with direct reference to scenes and descriptions of the action, explaining the use of the following elements in terms of relieving the stress caused by dealing with death:

  • The scenes involving food and eating;
  • Views of nature, such as the mountain and the agricultural fields;
  • The images of geese in fields and flying;
  • Images of weather, including fog, cold, rain, and spring;
  • Sexuality, including the fact that Daigo’s wife is pregnant;
  • Scenes in which Daigo is playing the cello;
  • Images of flowers and blossoms.

3. Certain scenes seem to be symbolic and communicate an idea. In a descriptive and precise paragraph, explain the idea found in one of the following scenes:

  • The view of the salmon struggling to return to their spawning grounds, including the dead fish floating by;
  • The scene involving the octopus which Daigo and Mika attempt to return to the sea;
  • The scene from Daigo’s boyhood in which his father gives him the stone letter;
  • The interaction with the funeral director who bids goodbye as he lights the fire that burns the coffin of Tsuyako, the woman from the bathhouse;
  • The collection of LP records that belonged to Daigo’s mother;
  • The room in which Daigo’s boss takes his meals;
  • The Christmas celebration at the NK office.

4. The following words come from Shokichi, the funeral director. Ask students to write a response in terms of their own experience with death. They should address the comfort or confusion they may find in the words. They may want to address the concept of a gateway in terms of its metaphorical value and even come up with a metaphor that may be more appropriate to their own culture or experience. “I’ve often thought that maybe death is a gateway. Dying doesn’t mean the end. You go through it and on to the next thing. It’s a gate and as the gatekeeper I’ve sent so many on their way, telling them, ‘Off you go. We’ll meet again.'”

5. Ask the students to reflect on the concept of “stone letters” and to imagine a stone that may communicate a thought that they find difficult to explain to someone. The reflection should be descriptive and may include dialogue as the writer thinks of how the stone would be delivered and received.

6. In terms of the Hero’s Journey, students can be asked to write an analysis of Daigo’s experience from his ordinary world to the film’s end. Students may decide that there is no real Hero’s Journey here; simply experience. They may decide that Daigo’s experience is a true Hero’s Journey. Students should refer to the film for support for their ideas and use persuasion to make their points clear.

7. Students can write a persuasive essay in which they assert the value of the archetypes of the Hero’s Journey in terms of their use in moving the story forward and in helping Daigo to progress on his journey. They may want to add or subtract specific persons from the list of archetypes and assert ideas of their own.

8. Students can write journal entries addressing their own experience with the death of a loved one. It is sometimes easier to involve students in reflecting about death if they are asked to write about the loss of a pet, an event which can be quite profound in the life of a child.

Written by Mary RedClay and James Frieden.

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