Oscar-winner from Japan takes calm look at death
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.