Masahiro Motoki and Tsutomu Yamazaki in Departures
Masahiro Motoki and Tsutomu Yamazaki in Departures

Yojiro Takita’s Departures, Japan’s Oscar winner for best foreign language film, is a likable enough story rooted in some fascinating raw material, but it is marred by ham handed voiceover, exaggerated sentimentality, odd jags of black humor and sappy montages that would feel at home in a CD commercial for “The World’s Most Relaxing Classical Music.” It’s a good movie and it’s worth seeing, but it probably plays better far removed from the expectations that come with an Oscar win.

Daigo Kobayashi is a dedicated cellist living with his wife in Tokyo. When his symphony orchestra unexpectedly dissolves, he decides to return to the home left to him by his mother in the small town in northern Japan where he grew up. Badly in need of work, he responds to a help wanted ad for work in “departures.” He assumes it’s something related to a travel agent, but when he shows up for the interview he discovers he’s applying for a job as an apprentice to an aging encoffiner, a special undertaker who cleanses and prepares bodies for cremation in an elaborate ceremony performed before the loved ones of the deceased.

It’s a strange job that society at large finds repellent, but the pay is too good to resist and the encoffiner convinces Daigo to at least give it a try. Though he gets off to a shaky start and he finds he’s unable to tell his wife what he’s doing for a living, he soon finds he’s good at what he does and he begins to understand the value of the service he provides grieving families. Will he be able to tell his wife the truth and will his new found pride help him work through the father abandonment issues dredged up by his return home?

The concept of encoffinment with its ritualized discretion is kind of fascinating to Western eyes and it provides an interesting and metaphorically rich background to Daigo’s conflict. Performances of the ceremony itself take up a significant chunk of the film’s two-hour plus running time and there is a beautiful, peaceful and meditative quality to them. On the other hand, the first one that Daigo performs himself becomes an uncomfortable punch line and it’s one of many instances where the film loses its balance between melodrama and comedy. Humor is highly subjective (and cultural) however, so the extent to which you find this stuff funny may dictate how well you respond to the film.

The melodrama itself is another matter as are the soaring montages of actions intercut with scenes of Daigo earnestly playing his cello on grassy hills in front of snowy mountains while the camera swoops around him dramatically. If you’re not quickly cast under the film’s particular spell, the exaggerated tonal shifts are off putting and distancing and it’s easy to overlook the story’s many moments of simple contemplative beauty that would otherwise be highlights.

Masahiro Motoki who was once the member of teen pop act Shibugaki Tai plays the part of Daigo. He’s earnest and likeable enough, but his wife is played by Ryoku Hirasue (also a pop star) is mostly irritating. Grounding things a bit with a weary dry humor is Tsutomu Yamazaki as Ikuei the encoffiner. US audiences may remember him best for Juzo Itami’s ’80s arthouse hits The Funeral, Tampopo and A Taxing Woman. He’s an old pro who worked with Akira Kurosawa on several of his ’60s films and he brings a wry likeability to his sage-like character that rescues the film from its more dubious inclinations whenever he’s on screen.

Departures/Okubito. Japan 2008 (US release 2009). Directed by Yojiro Takita. Screenplay by Kundo Koyama. Cinematography by Takeshi Hamada. Music score composed by Joe Hisaishi. Edited by Akimasa Kawashima. Starring Masahiro Motoki, Ryoko Hirosue, Tsutomu Yamazaki, Kimiko Yo, Takashi Sasano, Kazuko Yoshiyuki and Tetta Sugimoto. 2 hours 11 minutes. MPAA rated PG-13. 3 stars (out of 5)

6 Responses to “Review: Departures (2009) ***”

  1. Lovely piece of writing here, of that there can be no question. Your recent streak is intact in this sense.

    It seems the critics are divided on this film, with masterpiece proclamations alternating with cries of manipulation. Your own rating, despite some ‘quality acknowledgements’ is clearly in the latter camp. I haven’t seen this film yet, and I’m not sure if I’ll be able to work it in with commitments to view UP, DRAG ME TO HELL and PRESSURE COOKER, but we’ll see how things go. I do know of course that it’s Best Foreign Film Oscar was a major shock, even with the bizarre record of voting by that committee. Most were certain WALTZ WITH BASHIR and THE CLASS (both of which I had my own personal issues with) would prevail, and even those who did exceedingly well with their Oscar pools, missed the call on this one.

    I love classical music, and I fear this affection may prejudice my judgement, but I think Craig brings out some serious prospective problems, like for example this one:

    “but it is marred by ham handed voiceover, exaggerated sentimentality, odd jags of black humor and sappy montages that would feel at home in a CD commercial for “The World’s Most Relaxing Classical Music…”

    but still you beautifully relate this:

    “The concept of encoffinment with its ritualized discretion is kind of fascinating to Western eyes and it provides an interesting and metaphorically rich background to Daigo’s conflict…..”

    Sounds like this one can go either way, but I just have a hunch that you may well have called this right. The proof will be in the pudding of course.

  2. There are a couple of issues at work in the divided response for this film. Part of it which I acknowledged in the review is lingering resentment over its Oscar win. I wasn’t resentful since I wasn’t high on any of the selections, but it was still a bit of a let down.

    The other thing is a cultural barrier. There are certain assumptions about Japanese culture that play heavily in this film that might not be ringingly obvious to every Western viewer. There’s also the strange sense of humor in the film. Some reviewers I’ve read thought it was great, but I kind of hated it. It’s of a piece with some of the humor I’ve seen in other Japanese films though so maybe it’s just me.

    Finally, I think the Japanese just treat drama differently than we Americans do for better or for worse.

    If I were a gambling man (and I am) I’d go out on a limb and predict that you’ll like it. You’re probably better in tune with Japanese cinema outside of Kurosawa than I am.

  3. Now that was a tremendous response to me (thank you!) there as you broached issues that really matter, and explain the motives behind specific ‘connections’ (or lack thereof) with this film. The cultural barrier does inform contemporary Asian cinema, and a wrong assumption can certainly cloud a reaction one way or another.

    You are a modest man Kennedy. Asian cinema is a specialty of yours, so don’t be saying that I am ‘probably in tune with Japanese culture outside of Kurosawa than you are.’ Ain’t true. But your prediction could be a good one. I will try somehow to squeeze this in over the weekend.

  4. I imagine I will see this one eventually and try to make up my mind for myself.

    I love cellos. And I am fascinated by the business/rituals of death. I would like to think that this had sort of a Japanese Six Feet Under (in its best moments) vibe to it, but it doesn’t sound like it did that for you.

  5. Check out Sam’s comments on the watercooler JB. He liked it and you might too. As I said, the raw material was great, it was just the execution and weird tonal shifts that bothered me.

  6. DEPARTURES WILL BRING A TEAR TO ONE,S EYES IN SCENES THRU OUT THE FILM. MANY DIFFERENT LEVELS OF CONFLICT ARE ADDRESSED BUT GRIEF IS THE COMMON BOND BRINGING TOGETHER FAMILIES AND HOW THEY COPE. WHY ARE MOST OF THE DEAD SEEM TO BE VERY YOUNG WOMEN, WHAT WAS THE CAUSE OF THEIR DEMISE? I TOTALLY ENJOYED THE FILM AS IT UNWINDS FROM ONE SOCIAL ISSUE TO ANOTHER, ALWAYS KEEPING THE VIEWER ENTRANCED.

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