Os­car-win­ner from Ja­pan takes calm look at death

The Commercial Appeal - Go Memphis - - News - By John Bei­fuss

bei­fuss@com­mer­cialap­peal.com

The sur­prise win­ner of this year’s Academy Award for Best For­eign Lan­guage Film, Ja­pan’s “De­par­tures” re­deems a trite and self-con­sciously “re­demp­tive” story about fam­ily heal­ing and for­give­ness with hushed, beau­ti­fully staged and com­pelling se­quences in­volv­ing, well, stiffs.

Masahiro Mo­toki stars as Daigo, a young cel­list in need of a job af­ter the un­prof­itable clas­si­cal or­ches­tra that em­ploys him is dis­solved.

Seek­ing a less ex­pen­sive life­style, Daigo re­turns with his preg­nant wife (Ryoko Hiro­sue) to the house of his child­hood, in a quiet town sur­rounded by moun­tains, near the Ja­pan Sea. The house is empty be­cause Daigo’s mother is dead, and his fa­ther aban­doned the fam­ily when Daigo was a boy.

Daigo finds work with a “cas­ket­ing” com­pany, which pre­pares bodies in pub­lic cer­e­monies of “en­coffin­ment” (in the words of the English sub­ti­tles). Ap­par­ently, this is part of the fu­neral tra­di­tion of Ja­pan, and the “calm­ness, pre­ci­sion and, above all, af­fec­tion” dis­played by Daigo’s new boss (Tsu­tomo Ya­mazaki) as he cleanses and clothes the client corpses dur­ing this ex­tremely for­mal rit­ual is fas­ci­nat­ing and hum­bling, and yet an­other re­minder of the pre­cious­ness of our all too frail flesh.

How­ever, be­cause death — for all the cer­e­mony as­so­ci­ated with it — is some­thing of a taboo sub­ject in Ja­pan, Daigo’s new job causes him to be shunned by even his wife, who calls him “un­clean.”

De­spite its Os­car, “De­par­tures” might not play well in Ja­pan. Di­rected by Yo­jiro Takita from a script by Kundo Koyama, the fre­quent level of Hall­mark hok­i­ness would be hard to take if the film were in English, with, say, Ryan Reynolds and Martin Lan­dau as the cas­ke­teers. It’s the pe­cu­liarly Ja­panese el­e­ments of the movie that make it grip­ping for the U.S. viewer: the po­lite, grace­ful be­hav­ior; the won­der­ful decor and scenery (cherry blos­soms, tulips, snow­capped moun­tain peaks); the “ex­otic” de­tails (“I got an oc­to­pus,” an­nounces Daigo’s wife, af­ter a trip to the mar­ket).

On the other hand, death is a sub­ject that crosses all cul­tural lines, so maybe “De­par­tures” plays well ev­ery­where. The other uni­ver­sal sub­ject is sex, so it’s in­ter­est­ing to note that di­rec­tor Takita be­gan his ca­reer in the 1980s with such “pink” (Ja­panese soft­core) se­ries films as “Mo­lester Train 18: Keiko’s Hips” and “Mo­lester Train 23: Un­der­wear In­spec­tion.”

“De­par­tures” is at Malco’s Ridge­way Four.

Bartlett 10.

Ter­mi­na­tor Sal­va­tion

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