Thursday, May 28, 2009, That Should Be Departed

Departures follows Daigo Kobayashi (Masahiro Motoki), a devoted cellist in an orchestra that has just been dissolved and who is suddenly left without a job. Daigo decides to move back to his old hometown with his wife to look for work and start over. He answers a classified ad entitled Departures thinking it is an advertisement for a travel agency only to discover that the job is actually for a "Nokanshi" or "encoffineer," a funeral professional who prepares deceased bodies for burial and entry into the next life. While his wife and others despise the job, Daigo takes a certain pride in his work and begins to perfect the art of “Nokanshi,” acting as a gentle gatekeeper between life and death, between the departed and the family of the departed. The film follows his profound and sometimes comical journey with death as he uncovers the wonder, joy and meaning of life and living.

In Departures, this year's Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Film, a cellist with daddy issues named Daigo (Motoki) loses his orchestral gig and lands a job preparing corpses for the ritual Japanese ceremony of encoffination. Like Sunshine Cleaning, this is a gentle comic tale of grisly employment opportunity in desperate times. Only Departures is tender and, at times, rather squishy. It's sure to squeeze the tear ducts of anyone who has lost a parent (hence that Oscar). But Motoki, a droll actor, gives Daigo's embrace of the ''normality'' of death a stubborn, touching dignity. Daigo, a sad-sack musician in his thirties who, after his symphony orchestra is dismantled for lack of audience interest, returns with his reluctant but pliant wife, Mika (Ryoko Hirosue), to live in his dead mother's house in a beautiful Japanese backwater. Responding to a newspaper ad inviting candidates for a job in "departures," Daigo concludes he's going into the travel business, only to find himself being trained by a monosyllabic undertaker (Tsutomu Yamazaki) to spruce up dead bodies in preparation for their journey to the hereafter. Initially disgusted by his pungent "clients" and by the stigma of working with the "unclean" dead, Daigo does a lousy job, which Takita then turns into a digression into the broad physical comedy for which Japan is famous—jarringly at odds with the movie's otherwise gentle tone. The encoffining ceremony is a somber and spiritual event, so it's surprising when within the first few minutes of the procedure that opens the movie, we get a bit of humor, which immediately allows you to let out a sigh of relief that this won't be a stuffy overly-serious drama about death, but one that's often light and entertaining as well. That opening scene will be revisited later from a different angle, but it's fascinating to see how the film evolves from a comedy about the awkwardness of the job to the story about Daigo having to deal with the stigma of performing a duty that most people around him don't understand or accept. Over the course of the film, we start to learn Daigo is so sullen on returning home, because his father walked out on him and his mother when he was a young boy; thirty years later, he can't even remember his father's face. In time, though, this remote, subliminally angry young man finds himself strangely moved by the stories of the dead and by the gratitude of the grieving relatives who gather to watch him spiff up their loved ones. Once Daigo becomes more comfortable with the procedure, he realizes how important his role is, and he clearly has a knack for it. Even when his normally supportive wife disapproves, he sticks by his guns to do the job, realizing that the only way to change the opinion of those around him are by having them experience the ceremony for themselves. Enlightenment and self-healing loom visibly on the horizon, but at just over two hours, Departures takes its sweet time setting them up, with much foreshadowing and flashbacks to the souring of Daigo's childhood.  

Motoki is quite a talented actor, able to muster the comical expressions and reactions required in earlier scenes where Daigo encounters his first dead body, a scene reminiscent of Sunshine Cleaning. Later, Motoki adds a true poignance to the scenes where he tries to come to terms with his father abandoning him as a boy. There are also lots of great characters around Daigo, from his eccentric boss who is obsessed with food and eating, his loving wife played by the adorable and delightful Ryoko Hirosue, and others who try to help Daigo work through the issues from his past. There is so much beauty inherent in the film, especially with the way Daigo's cello playing becomes a part of the driving force behind the film's emotional content. Director Yojiro Takita also uses the picturesque surrounding countryside and the changing seasons to create an environment for this layered story that deals with the death and loss of loved ones in such a unique way. Takita springs enough bracing little surprises to save the movie from rank sentimentality—the old undertaker, who claims to hate himself for scarfing down an enormous meat meal after every job well done, is the movie's liveliest character.  Personally, I would challenge anyone to watch this film without tearing up especially as things come together for Daigo and are resolved at the end. I was deeply moved when I saw it, even knowing where things were going, which is one of the reasons why Departures is the first movie of the year to receive my highest possible ranking of 5 on my "Go See" scale.

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