Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Review: "Departures"

A lot of film lovers' heads snapped in surprise when "Departures" won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language film this past spring. "Waltz with Bashir" from Israel and "The Class" from France were considered very strong contenders, both with very serious subject matters. So when the little Japanese film about a cellist who becomes an undertaker prevailed, it was viewed as another example of the Academy Awards favoring the heart-warming over the challenging.

But "Bashir" and "The Class" both had fairly big U.S. releases last fall, whereas "Departures" is just now making its way around this country. Now that a wider audience is actually getting to see it, I think most of the carping from cinephiles will cease.

What a wonderfully life-affirming movie this is about death. It's an emotionally resonant story without a trace of maudlin sentiment.

Daigo Kobayashi (Masahiro Motoki) has finally achieved his dream of joining a major orchestra, until it is suddenly dissolved because of poor attendance. Crushed, Daigo decides to move from Tokyo back to his tiny hometown so he and his wife Mika (Ryoko Hirosue) can live rent-free in his late mother's house while he looks for a job.

He quickly finds a prospect, which requires no experience, and the pay is excellent, too. The ad is somewhat vague, though, and the reference to "departures" makes Daigo think it is a travel agency. But the stern boss (Tsutomu Yamazaki), who hires him after they've only exchanged a few words, explains that it's a typo, and the job entails working with "the departed."

By this, he means the dead.

Japanese custom had long been that the family prepared the body of its loved one for burial, but as times change this service has been taken over by the undertaker. Daigo and his boss come in, clean and dress the body, apply makeup and so on.

Sometimes this is done at a crime scene, with the deceased alone and in a poor, even revolting state. Usually, though, the work entails preparing the body in front of the grieving family members, in a ritualistic ceremony that is utterly beguiling.

Director Yojiro Takita and screenwriter Kundo Koyama approach this material with a smile on their lips, at least at first. There are some funny scenes as Daigo adjusts awkwardly to his new profession. On his first day he is made to dress up as a corpse while his boss performs the rituals on him for a trade video.

But the film gains heft and depth the further it goes. Daigo hides the exact nature of his new work from Mika, and when she finally learns what it is she reacts with shame and revulsion. A childhood friend orders his family to ignore Daigo, and advises him to get a real job.

The lovely musical score by Joe Hisaishi accents the burial scenes without intruding upon them, heightening the connection Daigo feels between himself and the departed. Everyone dies, he reasons, and would want to be treated with such dignity when they go.

"Departures" arrives late, but it's exceedingly worth the wait.

3.5 stars

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