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)
Filed under: Review
Tags: Akimasa Kawashima, Departures, Joe Hisaishi, Kazuko Yoshiyuki, Kimiko Yo, Kundo Koyama, Masahiro Motoki, Ryoko Hirosue, Takashi Sasano, Takeshi Hamada, Tetta Sugimoto, Tsutomu Yamazaki, Yojiro Takita