When “Departures” won the Oscar in February as best foreign-language film, no one was more surprised than director Yojiro Takita.
But then, “Departures” was a surprise hit in its native Japan. The story of a cellist who loses his job and finds a new calling preparing bodies for burial, the film is an engrossingly soulful story of the many forms artistry takes and the way empathy and affection can give depth and meaning to the grieving process.
As Takita and Masahiro Motoki, the film’s star (and the driving force behind getting the picture made), said in a recent interview in New York (conducted through a translator), “Departures” has always been “the little movie that could.”
Q: “Departures” depicts a process called encoffining, in which the main character of the film washes and prepares the corpse for the coffin, in a ritual performed before the family. Is this a common practice in Japan?
Motoki: No, most Japanese learned about the practice through this film. It’s a dying ritual that persists in a few areas. It’s hardly common. It does linger. You can order it as part of a funeral service. But it’s hardly common or typical.
Takita: It used to be a community ritual that was done out of love and respect, as opposed to a business. Washing and purifying the dead is now professionalized. It has become popularized because the film was a monster hit.
Motoki: It was only established as a profession in the 1960s. It’s making a comeback. Young people are starting to consider it as a legitimate profession. What’s most important about the technique is the overall approach. It’s not about putting yourself in the spotlight. You’re performing a ritual on the corpse on behalf of the family. You create an atmosphere on behalf of the family. It’s hard to master.
Q: The ritual itself seems very quiet and still. What was the challenge of filming it?
Takita: The biggest challenge was how to portray this in a way that was the most cinematic, to capture the light. My goal was to make the audience feel like they’re sitting on the floor with the bereaved family.
Q: There’s a surprising amount of humor, given the subject matter. How did you find the right balance?
Takita: I think the serious and the humor go hand in hand. The more earnest you are, the funnier it is from a different angle. It’s a nice combination without intentionally trying to make the audience laugh. You want to elicit organic humor.
Motoki: The key element in the first half is to highlight how pathetic his situation is. He’s lost his job, he’s in debt, he’s back in his hometown and now he goes to work in this shabby office. He has to go through his own pilgrim’s progress to find himself. I find humor in that.
Takita: It’s a delicate decision that only an audience can decide. We had an internal discussion. We decided that if there is humor, we should make it explicit. If not, keep it simple and clear.
Motoki: Our goal was never slapstick but an empathetic chuckle.
Takita: We wanted it as long as it was central to the character being clearly defined and helping audience identification, if we can elicit humor and laughter with a small gesture or movement.
Q: How hard was it to learn to play the cello convincingly?
Motoki: Learning the cello was a real struggle. The right and the left hand move in different ways and that drove me out of my mind. I spent two months practicing. Ultimately, I was able to polish my skills so that it worked fine. I even bought my own cello. It’s now a bit of a hobby. The cello is the instrument that most resembles the human voice.
Q: Was it difficult to get this movie made? Is there much of an independent film scene in Japan?
Takita: Whether it’s independent or studio, a movie on this theme is a struggle to get made. Thankfully, a producer fell in love with it and was willing to gamble on it. Without that, it would not get off the ground.
Motoki: Because it was such a gamble, it was a risk worth taking.
Takita: Because it started as completely independent without a distributor, it turned into the little movie that could.
Q: What did it mean when the film won the Oscar?
Takita: I was thrilled for the movie to be nominated for an Oscar, let alone to win. I thought about movies in terms of the Japanese audience. To receive the Oscar boosted my confidence. It’s given me courage and inspiration for future moviemaking.
Motoki: In Japan, the fact that this won the Academy Award created a frenzy. We get so much bad news and this was like a beautiful precious flower that bloomed. There are individual actors and directors taking more global steps. But for a whole Japanese film to win an award was a real shot in the arm.
Q: Will the two of you work together again?
Takita: My life has been very dramatic for a couple of months so I’m just trying to think about my next project. God knows if Masahiro and I will work together again.
Motoki: I’m 43. As an actor and a human being, I’m trying to figure out the next step. Who knows if it will be 10 years or next year before we work together. The important thing is to have fresh encounters and collaborators.