There’s more than life and death going on in “Departures,” the film that unexpectedly won the Oscar as best foreign film of 2008.
In this film from Japan, director Yojiro Takita skillfully blends a variety of plot elements in a story about our relationship with the deceased and what it shows us about our lives. But he also examines the nature of art and the need for self-expression, as well as the hold the past has on us, no matter how firmly rooted we are in the present.
Masahiro Motoki plays Daigo, who has achieved his lifelong dream of becoming a professional cellist in Tokyo. But when the orchestra folds, he finds himself at loose ends: no job, no prospects and still owing big bucks on an expensive instrument he couldn’t afford to begin with.
When he suggests moving back to his hometown in the provinces, his wife Mika (Ryoko Hirosue) cheerfully accepts, reminding him that they can live free in the house his late mother left them. Once there, he spots an ad in the newspaper for what he thinks is a job at a travel agency.
In fact, the position is as an encoffiner, doing the job of casketing as a subcontractor to the local undertaker. The encoffiners perform the ritual of washing and preparing the body for the casket, as the family observes.
His initial reactions are predictable: nervous, squeamish, grossed out. It doesn’t help that his first assignment is assisting his boss (Tsutomu Yamazaki) in the removal of a two-week-old corpse.
As he observes the boss in more formal rituals, however, Daigo begins to see the need for – and even the beauty of – the ritual they perform. The object is to wash and prepare the body for its journey from this world to the next. But it must be done without exposing the corpse itself to view. The result is like a stylized, formal magic act, with shifting layers of fabric as the body is undressed, washed and reclothed, all done in plain sight and yet hidden from view. There is a quality of mystery and beauty to the performance that’s undeniable.
As Daigo learns, he also sees the comfort and acceptance that viewing the ritual brings to the family. It doesn’t make for less sadness – but it allows for an unusual kind of closure and closeness to the departed.
Performing the act well brings Daigo a surprising sense of accomplishment, comparable to the feeling he gets from playing the cello. But, initially, it also makes him something of an outcast. An old friend shuns him once he learns what Daigo is doing. Daigo’s wife leaves him when he refuses to give up the job.
There is more – much more – about one’s relationship with parents, about the transient nature of life and about the need for grace in everyday dealings. Takita blends it together with the enveloping music of Joe Hisaishi and the simple but effective cinematography of Takeshi Hamada.
Yes, it seems corny to create a montage around Daigo, abandoned by his wife but nurtured by his profession, playing his cello on a dike to soothe his soul as the seasons change around him. Yet it’s an effective and moving sequence, one that truly establishes a transformation in Daigo that pays off in the film’s final half hour.
Motoki is particularly good, capturing the uncertainty, the sadness (at the loss of his musical career) and the growing sense of achievement, as he gains accomplishment in his new field. He’s equally good with the film’s unexpected humor, which never intrudes on its soulfulness yet provides surprising laughter in what one assumes will be a somber tale, given the subject matter.
Yamazaki, as the boss, also offers a performance of exceptional variety. He’s perfectly cast as the serious practitioner of this tradition, yet has a wonderfully wry sense of humor and deadpan delivery.
“Departures” is an incredibly fulfilling movie experience, taking you places you never imagine it can. In a season devoted to movies that go crash-bang-boom, this film offers quiet joy, beauty – and an amazing array of feelings.