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To the Japanese, occupations as benign as the folding of paper or the serving of tea are considered strict and ancient art forms, performed by those who have studied long and hard to perfect those crafts.  No wonder then that an act as significant as saying final goodbyes to a loved one should merit all the ceremony and beauty the Japanese apply to everyday tasks. 

When Departures begins, Western audiences will perhaps for the first time witness the solemn elegance of an encoffining ceremony.  The encoffiner, or Nokanshi, performs a series of graceful rituals on the body of the departed in full view of the bereaved family, wiping down the face and limbs, changing their kimono and otherwise grooming the corpse in preparation for the final step of cremation.  Daigo, a young man fairly new to the profession, performs his first encoffining, winding his hands about the deceased in a weaving spell that mesmerises his viewers, that is until he runs into an uncomfortable surprise.  Daigo learns one of many lessons in the subtle dance around a grieving family and their complex stories. 

Daigoís adventures in the farewell trade werenít something he planned.  Daigo had a very different life in mind as a professional cellist. The dissolution of his orchestra due to financial hard times forces him and his supportive wife to move back to Daigoís hometown and rethink their plans for the future.  Desperate for work, Daigo answers a newspaper ad seeking someone to work in ďdepartures.Ē  Itís only at his interview that he realises a subtle typo has omitted exactly what kind of departures the funeral home meant.  Lured by a good pay and the overwhelming presence of his forceful new boss, Daigo overcomes his initial misgivings and repulsion and becomes a truly gifted Nokanshi.  Too bad for Daigo, others donít see his new job in a very sympathetic light: Old friends avoid him as some kind of a ghoul and his loving wife, Mika, begs him to quit for the sake of their unborn child.  Having had to sacrifice his dream of playing in a successful orchestra to make a living, will Daigo give up this new vocation just as he discovers his talent for it? 

Departures won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film earlier this year and it deserved every ounce of gold on the statue.  An unorthodox original story about literally touching death is a brilliant catalyst for the movieís message of celebrating life.  Through his overbearing employer and the intimate views of the many different families he meets along the way, Daigo is pulled out of his insular, somewhat self-pitying shell.  Where his world only consisted of himself and his wife, Daigo realises the connections and common ground all people share through loss and mourning and the rebirth that takes place once final goodbyes are said.  For the first time the young man takes real pride in his work and it is only after Mika sees the invaluable role he plays in comforting grieving families that she puts aside her prejudice to appreciate him as never before. 

For its ostensibly dramatic premise, Departures is a hilarious film, not afraid to go for the silly laughs when it pleases.  The opening scene with a gender bending-corpse, the initial misunderstanding with the classified ad and Daigo nervously playing a corpse on an encoffining instructional video are a scream.  The oddball levity is unexpected and perfectly weighed in this story about coping with death. 

Masahiro Motoki is wonderful as Daigo.  His quizzical expressions set the right tone for the young man bowled over by the force of nature that is his new boss and his natural inclination to run screaming from this new profession.  Motoki also captures the sensitivity of Daigoís struggles; first, seeing his dreams as a cellist turn to dust and worrying about caring for his wife and new baby, coping with his unusual new job and the strange social stigma that goes with it, then finally dealing with a family situation he fought many years not to think about.  It is Daigoís interactions with those around him, particularly his bearish boss the funeral agency (Brilliantly played by Tsutomu Yamazaki, who steals his scenes with sly, impeccable timing.), Yuriko, the bawdy, down-to-earth receptionist and the elderly owner and patron of Daigoís hometown bathhouse that start to make his world rounder.  As Mika, Daigoís wife, Ryoko Hirosue is absolutely darling and the chemistry between the two actors is lovely.  The viewer understands that Mika makes sacrifices for love of Daigo, not because itís expected.  Sheís a noble character.  Once Mika actually demands her husband give up this crazy job, she does so with restraint and fire.  Their relationship and the compromises this young couple makes to have a happy life seemed real and caring. 

Of course, as one would reckon from a movie about death and funerals there are Kleenex moments, but none where you would expect them to be and when they arrive those sniffles arenít manipulated.  There is a beautiful scene where the camera pans around Daigo planted in the middle of an empty field with snow-capped mountains behind him playing the cello he used as a child.  Itís a wonderful depiction of Daigoís resignation to his new work while remembering his love of the instrument and the freedom it gave him to play.  Daigo explaining to Mika the story of a small rock he kept with him and its connection to the father who abandoned him as a small child is heartbreaking.  Director Yojiro Takita weighs these moments carefully, being judicious and sparing in his heart-string tugging.

Strangely haunting in the way it lingers in the mind and heart after itís over, Departuresí amazing achievement is in being a film about death that is so truly beautiful, joyful and life-affirming. 

Lovely, this.

 

~ The Lady Miz Diva

May 28th, 2009

 

 

Click here to read our interview with Departures star Masahiro Motoki and director Yojiro Takita for Tokyo FM with Megumi Sato.

 

 

 

 

© 2006-2017 The Diva Review.com

 

 

 

Photos

(Courtesy of  Regent Releasing)

 

 

 

 

 

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