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Spirited Awry

Departures (2008)

Regent Releasing/Here Media

In a surprise win over the much-hyped “Waltz with Bashir” and “The Class,” a modest film from Japan took this year’s Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. “Departures” is a beautiful, quietly moving film which hits the mark precisely because it does not try to be too ambitious in telling the simple story of a man finding his way in the world.

Shortly after 30something Daigo Kobayashi (Masahiro Motoki) lands a position as a professional cellist, the symphony orchestra disbands due to poor ticket sales. Daigo is not only unemployed, but in debt from purchasing a new cello he believed would catapult him to stardom. As he struggles to come to terms with the failed dream of a music career, he and his young wife Mika (a very young looking Ryoko Hirosue) move back to his hometown and into the house he grew up in. Daigo’s father abandoned the family when he was a young boy, yet his mother never got over the loss and kept many of his old belongings.

Daigo searches the classifieds for a new career and finds an opening for a business specializing in “departures.” Believing that this refers to an opportunity in a travel agency, he goes for an interview. But owner Sasaki (Tsutomu Yamazaki) informs him that his business is “encoffination,” a traditional ceremony washing and preparing the body for cremation. Sasaki likes Daigo right away, and offers him a large cash advance to overcome his hesitation and essentially become his apprentice. Daigo is initially reluctant, but he develops a great respect for the rite watching Sasaki help families mourn their lost loved ones.

Unfortunately, Daigo’s wife and friends find out about his morbid occupation just as he is beginning to enjoy his work, and they strongly disapprove. The sheer intensity of their disapproval suggests that while working with dead bodies may be considered merely gross in the West, it is a serious cultural taboo in Japan.

“Departures” painstakingly recreates the encoffination process several times over the course of the film, showing the care and reverence which goes into the ceremony as well as the actors impressive grasp of the process. Mr. Yamazaki radiates his unique brand of deadpan warmth as Sasaki, and Mr. Motoki is an appealing lead, deftly juggling the film’s surprising amount of comic elements and its drama.

Director Yojiro Takita crafts a visually elegant film with a score that ranges from sublime to overly sentimental. “Departures” is not a masterpiece and probably not the best foreign film of 2008 – most of its emotional punches are too predictable and heavy-handed for that – but it is a solidly compelling film celebrating a tradition which honors life as much as death.


Opens on May 29 in Manhattan and on Dec. 4 in Britain.

Directed by Yojiro Takita; written by Kundo Koyama; director of photography, Takeshi Hamada; edited by Akimasa Kawashima; music by Joe Hisaishi; production designer, Fumio Ogawa; produced by Toshiaki Nakazawa; released by Regent Releasing (United States) and Arrow Films (Britain). In Japanese, with English subtitles. Running time: 2 hours 11 minutes. This film is rated PG-13 by M.P.A.A. and 12A by B.B.F.C.

WITH: Masahiro Motoki (Daigo Kobayashi), Ryoko Hirosue (Mika Kobayashi), Tsutomu Yamazaki (Ikuei Sasaki), Kimiko Yo (Kamimura Yuriko), Takashi Sasano (Shokichi Hirata), Kazuko Yoshiyuki (Tsuyako Yamashita) and Tetta Sugimoto (Yamashita).


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