From The Ashes: After losing his symphony job in Tokyo, Daigo Kobayashi (Masahiro Motoki) moves to the country and begins a career in ceremonial "encoffination." Here Media/Regent Releasing hide caption
From The Ashes: After losing his symphony job in Tokyo, Daigo Kobayashi (Masahiro Motoki) moves to the country and begins a career in ceremonial "encoffination."Here Media/Regent Releasing
If there was one real surprise at this year's Academy Awards, it was the winner for Best Foreign Language Film. The front-runner was widely thought to be the Israeli war movie Waltz with Bashir — but the Oscar went to Departures, a Japanese film that hadn't yet opened in the U.S.
The brainchild of its leading actor, onetime boy-band member Masahiro Motoki, Departures turns out to be a delightful surprise, at once an engaging dramedy and an eloquent social statement about ... well, I'm getting ahead of myself.
When a Tokyo orchestra goes bankrupt, its cellist, a young sad sack named Daigo (Motoki) finds himself unable to support the big-city lifestyle to which he and his wife are just becoming accustomed. So they move to his rural hometown, where he starts a job search.
There's no orchestra to work for, but an ad offering a career "working with departures" sounds promising; the travel industry intrigues him. So he arranges an interview and, to his surprise, is hired almost before he sits down. At a high salary, too.
There is, however, a catch: The word "departures" in the ad was a misprint. The job involves working with the departed — the dearly departed. As in, Daigo will be preparing bodies for cremation.
He's about to flee the interview when the boss offers him his first day's salary and suggests he try the job for a bit and see. And soon the musician starts to get in touch with his inner undertaker.
A Grave Matter: Mika (Ryoko Hirosue) reacts badly when she discovers Daigo's new profession. Departures explores distinctly Japanese questions about class and culture, but it's entertaining enough to appeal to a global audience. Here Media/Regent Releasing hide caption
A Grave Matter: Mika (Ryoko Hirosue) reacts badly when she discovers Daigo's new profession. Departures explores distinctly Japanese questions about class and culture, but it's entertaining enough to appeal to a global audience.Here Media/Regent Releasing
The stylized ceremonies — all performed with grieving relatives in attendance — turn out to require nearly as much delicacy as playing a cello did, you see, and Daigo discovers that the rituals have a real beauty to them. Also a habit of not going quite as planned, which can lead to unexpected comedy at funerals.
What the film doesn't say, but what Japanese audiences would know, is that Daigo's initial reluctance isn't just about what he sees as the job's "ick" factor: For centuries, dealing with dead bodies and dead animals was regarded as unclean in Japan, much as it was in India, and though the caste system that limited opportunities for the burakumin has long been a thing of the past, that prejudice dies hard. Those who prepare bodies are still widely discriminated against, and that discrimination can extend to families.
So when the film empathizes with Daigo as, say, his wife reacts with revulsion to the job he has taken, or his neighbors shun him, it's engaging in an act of social criticism. Which may be why director Yojiro Takita built so much humor into the story — never mind that slapstick often seems distinctly at odds with the material — and why he made the visuals so seductive. The strategy definitely worked with Japanese audiences, who forked over more than $60 million at the box office.
And while this lovely, sentimental film is hardly likely to have success on that scale in the U.S., it will absolutely delight the art-house crowd. Multiplexes will be crowded with noisy summer films, after all, from which Departures will represent a sophisticated and elegant departure.
- Director: Yojiro Takita
- Genre: Foreign
- Running time: 131 minutes
PG-13: Thematic material
With: Masahiro Motoki, Ryoko Hirosue, Tsutomu Yamazaki, Kimiko Yo
'The Salmon Swim Upstream'
The members of the Academy who gave Departures its Oscar must be feeling their mortality. The movie tells the story of a second-rate cellist who loses his job when an orchestra is disbanded but finds inner peace and fulfillment working as a nokanshi, ceremonially preparing the bodies of the newly deceased before they are placed in coffins for cremation. Maybe the Academy’s elderly voters appreciated the way that the man’s newfound serenity guides him to an emotional rapprochement with his hated father, who abandoned him with the gift of a pebble when he was a small child. But it seems more likely that their enthusiasm was triggered by the lengthy demonstrations of the nokan ceremonies themselves: the discreet sanitizing of the dead body, the arrangement of limbs, and, especially, the dressing and application of makeup. The movie is a paean to the good-looking corpse.
The scripting of Departures (by Kundo Koyama, the one-man TV-drama writing factory who nurtured such delights as Iron Chef) is embarrassingly clunky and obvious: the movie’s essential hollowness reveals itself with unusual starkness. Protagonist Daigo Kobayashi is maneuvered into the undertaking profession through a series of feeble narrative contrivances. He conceals the true nature of his job from his young wife (the script has laboriously established that he’s done such things before), and so she walks out when she discovers what he actually does after discovering an instructional video in which he plays a corpse and has gauze stuffed up his anus to prevent seepage. However, women being the simple creatures that they are, she returns as soon as she discovers that she’s pregnant, and it takes only one attendance at a nokan ceremony to reconcile her to hubby’s line of work and then to take the initiative in helping Daigo overcome his hatred of his absent father. All of this takes place against a backdrop shift from the bustle and glitz of metropolitan Tokyo to the rural tranquility of Yamagata Prefecture, conveniently home to the wild geese whose migratory patterns so poetically symbolize the departing soul.
Daigo is played, quite adequately, by Masahiro Motoki, who has trodden these paths before. His claim to stardom dates from the early Nineties, when he not only posed for a volume of nude photographs by Kishin Shinoyama but also starred in two movies by Masayuki Suo, Fancy Dance (89) and Sumo Do, Sumo Don’t (92), in both of which he played hip young slackers discovering their inner maturity through immersion in Japan’s ancient traditions, Buddhism and sumo wrestling respectively. Departures is a virtual rerun of the same scenario, and so Shochiku didn’t need to scratch their corporate heads long over the casting. They didn’t have much trouble with Daigo’s mentor figure Sasaki either; the eccentric but kind-hearted old man, who started a nokan company after the death of his wife, is played by the grizzled Tsutomu Yamazaki, who has been trading in characters like this at least since Tampopo (86). Choosing the director must have been a cinch too. Over a long career which started in soft porn in the early Eighties, Yojiro Takita has distinguished himself by never imposing any ideas of his own on the scripts that companies have thrown at him; Shochiku evidently turned to him again because the lumbering samurai movie he made for them in 2003, When the Last Sword Is Drawn, sold relatively well overseas. None of this matters, of course, and Departures will be forgotten tomorrow. Ironically, though, two of 2008’s best films were made in Japan: Ryosuke Hashiguchi’s All Around Us and Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Still Walking. They, however, remain unreleased outside Japan.