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Japanese Sleeper Crosses Over to World Acclaim

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Martin Tsai/Critic's Notebook

When “Departures” claimed an Academy Award in the Best Foreign Language Film category, it had already hung on for six months in Japanese theaters, and its DVD was on its way to local stores. But its box-office receipts more than doubled after its Oscar triumph, even with the DVD readily available.

“Part of me wishes it wouldn’t take an Academy Award for the film to get that big,” Yojiro Takita, the director, quipped, speaking through an interpreter. “It was a mystery to a lot of people how this film might find an audience, and how to market it to reach that audience.”

Find an audience it certainly did, though. Mr. Takita allowed that the film has especially resonated with the elderly in Japan, many of whom haven’t visited a movie house in decades.

In “Departures,” a cellist returns with his wife to his native Sakata after his symphony orchestra in Tokyo disbands amid the economic downturn. Desperate for work, he reluctantly accepts a job offer from a funeral director to work as his assistant. Apparently death is a near verboten topic in Japan outside of the horror context. In fact, the subject matter likely caused the film to sit on the shelf for more than a year after completion.

“Death is considered impure or tainted, and so we have long denied it,” Mr. Takita said. “For a long time, there’s been a sense that there’s a stigma that’s attached to death and people who have to deal with it.”

Given that the film’s protagonist is a cellist, music serves as much more than the backdrop for “Departures.” Joe Hisaishi, best known for scoring numerous films for Hayao Miyazaki and Takeshi Kitano, composed a theme that’s as integral to the film as is its screenplay.

“I had worked with Mr. Hisaishi when I made ‘When the Last Sword is Drawn.’ And I knew by the way he had read music into the script for that film that he can really create an aural atmosphere that would be perfect for a particular movie,” Mr. Takita said. “Because the story is about a cellist, we agreed beforehand that there would be almost no instrument beside the cello in the film. Of course, it was impossible to have just the cello on the soundtrack. But ultimately, the main theme at the end is played with 13 cellos. And through a discussion before we started filming, he was able to envision and compose the main theme, so that we were able to play it during the filming, which really helped inspire the actors.”

Masahiro Motoki, the lead actor in “Departures,” is one of the most bankable stars in Japan. He in effect conducted research for two roles, so he could pass as both a professional cellist and a professional undertaker. He logged many hours in a practice room with the cello, and he spent two months apprenticing with a funeral director.

“Although technically it was a huge challenge for me to perform on the cello convincingly, for me as an actor it was very inspiring to be able to work with that instrument,” Mr. Motoki said, speaking through an interpreter. “I also felt that there was a very lovely metaphorical connection, since the cello is originally inspired by the human form — especially the female form. So I start out embracing the cello, which is based on the human body, and then I start embracing the human body directly in the form of a corpse.”

Even though Mr. Motoki is neither a trained cellist nor a mortician, the trajectory of his own career has actually mirrored that of the protagonist. Mr. Motoki entered show business in 1982 as a member of the boy band Shinbugaki Tai and also faced an uncertain future when the group broke up in 1988.

“I doubt that my singing skills were such that I would have wound up with a Grammy had I stayed a singer. I don’t think that was in the cards for me,” Mr. Motoki said. “I think I am very fortunate to have become an actor, because film can be such a universal language. And through that medium, people outside Japan can appreciate my work. But on the other hand, I think there was a larger sense of fate that carried me to the Kodak Theatre stage that night, because an actor has to find the right material, and that material has to jive with the times, the zeitgeist and the ethos. And all of that came together in a very organic way.”

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