Film

It’s Hard to Stay Mad at Surprise Oscar Winner Departures

by

The stately Japanese movie Departures comes into theaters
trailing some justified ill will for having trounced the critical
favorite, Israel’s Waltz With Bashir, for Best Foreign Film at
last year’s Academy Awards. It’s not hard to fathom what Academy
voters, who skew mature, saw in Departures, an earnest appeal
for renewed respect toward the old and the dead. But the movie, about a
depressive young cellist who discovers his vocation and his better self
practicing the ancient art of corpse beautification in a provincial
funeral parlor, was also a smash hit with moviegoers of all ages in
Japan, and not just because its director, Yojirô Takita, is best
known for making soft-core porn. The movie carried off 10 local Academy
Awards, a coup previously scored by the 1996 comedy Shall We
Dance?
.

In form and substance, the two films couldn’t be more
different—but taken together, they make fascinating bookends for
the ambivalence of a society blithely dumping its traditionally tight
work and family structures as it races into post-modernity. If Shall
We Dance
?—in which a shy young bureaucrat liberates his inner
foxtrotter on the ballroom dance floor—extended an impish
invitation to Japan’s tightly wound male corporate culture to unravel a
bit, Departures gently nudges Japan’s alienated new generation
to find meaning in the performance of age-old domestic rituals.

Masahiro Motoki, a former boy-band singer who appeared in Shall
We Dance?
, stars here as Daigo, a sad-sack musician in his thirties
who, after his symphony orchestra is dismantled for lack of audience
interest, returns with his reluctant but pliant wife, Mika (Ryoko
Hirosue), to live in his dead mother’s house in a beautiful Japanese
backwater. Responding to a newspaper ad inviting candidates for a job
in “departures,” Daigo concludes he’s going into the travel business,
only to find himself being trained by a monosyllabic undertaker (the
excellent veteran actor Tsutomu Yamazaki) to spruce up dead bodies in
preparation for their journey to the hereafter.

Initially disgusted by his pungent “clients” and by the stigma of
working with the “unclean” dead, Daigo does a lousy job, which Takita
then turns into a digression into the broad physical comedy for which
Japan is famous—jarringly at odds with the movie’s otherwise
gentle tone. In time, though, this remote, subliminally angry young man
finds himself strangely moved by the stories of the dead and by the
gratitude of the grieving relatives who gather to watch him spiff up
their loved ones. Inevitably, Daigo has his own family troubles with an
absentee father whom he has never forgiven, and the pining mother he
had jettisoned the moment he could head for the big city. Enlightenment
and self-healing loom visibly on the horizon, but at just over two
hours, Departures takes its sweet time setting them up, with
much foreshadowing and flashbacks to the souring of Daigo’s
childhood.

Though there’s no compelling reason why this minor piece should have
triumphed over the far more groundbreaking Waltz With Bashir,
Takita’s unpretentious classicism and his candid delight in nature work
their modest way into our sympathies, along with the plaintive cello
pieces by composer Joe Hisaishi, who scored such Miyazaki treasures as
My Neighbor Totoro and Howl’s Moving Castle. Takita
springs enough bracing little surprises to save the movie from rank
sentimentality—the old undertaker, who claims to hate himself for
scarfing down an enormous meat meal after every job well done, is the
movie’s liveliest character. Departures is built for simplicity,
and, if nothing else, the appeal to decency and integrity of this
sweetly old-fashioned tale make it a must for Bernie Madoff’s prison
Netflix queue. Amid the culture of cheating and heedless one-upmanship
that has brought the globe to its knees, it’s a lovely thing to meet a
movie that refuses to divorce what it means to be a professional from
what it means to be a mensch.