Japanese filmmaker Yojiro Takit’s film Departures gives is not only a celebration of life but is also about a taboo subject in his country; death. But Departures carries enough comedy and tender moments to make for a heartfelt experience.  Though the production was troubled, its universal themes and ability to pull emotional chords helped it win the Oscar for best foreign language film.

The Players:

  • Director: Yojiro Takita
  • Writer: Kundo Koyama
  • Cast: Masahiro Motoki, Ryoko Hirosue, Tsutomu Yamazaki

Notes:

Departures is the story of Daigo (Masahiro Motoki), a young married man who discovers new perspectives on life after being put face-to-face with death.  Working as a professional cellist for a symphony in Tokyo, Daigo decides to seek a fresh start in his home town when the orchestra is disbanded.  Convinced that his musical talent has limits, he looks for another job and follows a vague ad that leads him into a job preparing corpses for cremation.  But this is not the kind of mortician you may be imagining.  Unlike in other countries, Japan’s “noukanshi” morticians perform cleansing and beautifying services in the presence of grieving families.  And with that Departures draws you in to how beautiful and dignifying that ritual can be.

Daigo’s wife, Mika (Ryoko Hirosue)  initially welcomes the move from big city to small town,  but is disgusted when she discovers the kind of work he’s doing, so she bolts.  The actress Hirosue is a pop-star in Japan, which may be why her acting is the weakest part of the film. While Mika’s motivation to leave is justified (we know Daigo has lied before about the cost of his cello), she is way too cutesy.  If not for the amazing score by Joe Hisaishi, her close-ups would not carry any weight.  And speaking of the score, when the encoffining rituals are combined with Hisaishi’s score, it’s pure magic.  A cello-centric score is very difficult to pull off, but Hisaishi’s music is (heh) instrumental in making this movie work.  His musical notes lend an important presence to every scene.   Serving as Daigo’s teacher is Sasaki (Tsutomu Yamazaki), whose personality grounds a film that runs the risk of over-sentimentality.

Daigo’s evolution is captivating, especially considering that he’s never seen a dead body before.  Director Takita trusts his material enough to lead us through this natural progression.  He shows Daigo having sufficient doubts, hesitating, and even puking when confronted with the ugliest parts of the job.  This is made tactile when Daigo is enraptured with his wife’s scent – kissing and pressing his nose all over her body, desperate to feel the touch of a living human.  But Daigo also shows as much care for his cello as he does for the bodies he encoffins.  The parallels between the lives he honors and music he plays are made poetic.  At its core, Departures functions also as compelling father-son story.

Brief Words for Mr. Ebert:

Knowing only that this film was about an apprentice mortician, I mentally prepared myself to watch something very serious.  I was not expecting somethign this entertaining in a, provoking yet lighthearted way.  But as you begin your review, “Death is for the living and not for the dead so much.”  Because in Departures, “no discussion of an afterlife takes place, it is all about the living.”  While I do not agree with unreserved praise for all the casting choices, I share your celebration of the music, the lush cinematography and its absorbing overall quality.  What is most striking about this film, as you mention, is how it manages to view death.  “It is an observation that a life has been left for the contemplation of the survivors.”

Good, Bad or Great Movie:  GOOD

Do you like ?  Do you consider this film to be Good, Bad, or does it stand up as Great?

Next week’s review:  Baraka

Years ago, ScreenCrave contributor Jaime Lopez privately began tackling Roger Ebert’s “Greatest Films” list, an ever-expanding monolith of celluloid currently comprised of approximately 354 films.  Lopez has set himself to put these remaining films’ “Greatness” to the test–reviewing both the movies themselves and Ebert’s response.  By taking on Yojiro Takita’s Departures this week, he now has 287 under his belt and less than 100 films left to go.