Departures (おくりびと)
Made in: Japan
Language: Japanese
Director: Yojiro Takita
Starring: Masahiro Motoki, Tsutomu Yamazaki, Ryoko Hirosue, Kimiko Yo, Tetta Sugimoto, Takashi Sasano, Kazuko Yoshiyuki, Toru Minegishi
Year: 2008 - Won Academy Award for Best Foreigh Language Film in 2009

Synopsis: Daigo Kobayashi (Masahiro Motoki) is a professional cellist for a skilled but failing orchestra. When the orchestra is finally disbanded, Daigo's dreams of being a musician are suddenly dashed. Without a steady income and now lacking direction, he and his cheery and dutiful wife, Mika (Ryoko Hirosue), relocate to Daigo's hometown of Sakata (located in the region of Yamagata).

Settling in to the home left to him by his late mother, Daigo sets about desperately finding work and answers an ad for "assisting departures."

Thinking it is a travel agency, Daigo applies, is interviewed, and hired on the spot by the small company's owner, Shoei Sasaki (Tsutomu Yamazaki). Sasaki is an elderly, soft-spoken man with a dry wit and quiet flair for the unpredictable.

The agency, however, turns out to be a small company specializing in "encoffinment." In other words, the job calls for the ceremonial preparation of dead bodies before they are to be buried or cremated.

The delicate, painstaking ceremony is always performed right in front of the families of the deceased, and with emotions running high, Mr. Sasaki and Daigo are subject to seeing the true colors of a variety of families. And since each family has its own dynamic, the emotional displays they witness range from horrifying, touching, to outright hilarious.

At first, Daigo tries keeping his new job a secret from his wife and friends, since the taboo subject of death is sure to make him an outcast. But in time, the grim line of work forces him to come to terms with his own personal issues, his troubled past, and his relationship with his estranged father.

The Good: Departures is simply an excellent film. Masahiro Motoki is perfectly cast as Daigo, and is as real as anyone you'd actually meet in real life. Ditto for the venerable Tsutomu Yamazaki as Daigo's boss. Yamazaki's demeanor and dry humor is subtle but laugh-out-loud funny in places.

From the first scene, director Yojiro Takita does a brilliant job setting up the mood of the entire film and hooking the audience in. The double meaning of "coming home," being both a literal theme of returning to one's roots as well as a symbol of death, is also well balanced and remains consistent until the end.

Most of all, Yojiro Takita does a great job telling a story centered around a highly unpopular subject (with culture-specific elements), and creates a tale that just about anyone can relate to.

The Bad: Not much to gripe about at all. The only thing I can possibly think of, and this is more cultural than a fault of the director, is that not all viewers will identify with way in which death is presented in the film.

It appears that Yojiro Takita assumes his audience will already have an innate understanding of the highly taboo subject of death in many segments of traditional Japanese society, and therefore does not press the point too much.

But coming from a country (The US) where cemeteries are literally out in the open (sometimes even on college campuses and right next to shopping malls in some cases), death may still be an uncomfortable subject. However, someone in Daigo's line of work most likely wouldn't have to fear societal alienation to the extent that someone in Japan would.

So my fellow US viewers might not get why Daigo behaves the way he does in parts of the film (unless they happen to have an understanding of Japanese culture).

Who would like this film: I'd highly recommend Departures to anyone who likes foreign films, but I also think it has enough universal appeal to be popular among those just starting to look beyond Hollywood to see what's out there.

Departures has a lot of good drama, great humor, and originality, and is intended for those in the mood to watch something with more substance rather than light entertainment. And interestingly enough, it's very uplifting.

It's also a good example to anyone to prove that there's a lot more to Japan than Godzilla movies and weird hair styles.

It's a long film (over 2 hours), but moves at a good pace. I wish I could write more about it in the Good section but am afraid I'd give too much away. Check it out!

(4 out of 4 stars)

Review written by: Joe Yang

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