Yojiro Takita’s picture won the Oscar for best foreign-language film last year, and it’s easy to see why, even though there were other (and stronger) contenders. Like “Life is Beautiful” and similar winners from the past, it deals with a dark subject but in a life-affirming fashion that leaves it not bleak but uplifting. But while “Departures” is clearly manipulative and occasionally mawkish, for the most part it maintains a light, quirky touch that makes it easy to take.
The protagonist is Daigo Kobayashi (Masahiro Motoki), a young cellist in a Tokyo orchestra who’s just gone deeply into debt for a splendid new instrument when the owner of the group announces it’s being disbanded for financial reasons. Without any other options, Daigo sells his cello, and he and his perkily supportive wife Mika (Ryoko Hirosue) decamp for his hometown in the north, where he’s inherited his late mother’s modest house.
Searching the want ads for a job, Daigo spies one dealing with departures and assumes it’s with a travel agency. It turns out instead to be an assistantship to Mr. Sasaki (Tsutomu Yamazaki), an aging “coffinman,” who’s hired by undertakers to prepare corpses for placement in their coffins—and eventual cremation. The job involves the gentle, ritualistic cleansing and dressing of the body while family and friends look on grieving. Daigo is taken aback at the prospect, but the large salary persuades him to take the job, though he keeps its nature secret from his wife and an old friend whose elderly mother runs the neighborhood’s public baths.
Daigo finds, of course, that despite the embarrassment connected with it, the job is one that has rewards emotional as well as monetary, and—as his wily boss foresaw—he’s good at it. There are complications, of course, when his wife discovers his occupation and leaves him until he gives it up. A major subplot has to do with Daigo’s simmering resentment at the father who abandoned him as a child—which culminates in a highly predictable last-act reconciliation in which his new expertise comes into play. And the connection the picture draws between Daigo’s music-making and his refined way of dealing with the dead is rather too insistent, particularly in a long, treacly montage in which he plays a cello in the middle of a field as scenes of his work, flashbacks and outdoor vistas fill the screen.
But though the treatment by Takita and screenwriter Kundo Koyama (based on a memoir by Shinmon Aoki) has its share of contrivances and maudlin moments, it’s still warmly moving, because apart from some obvious missteps (like that unfortunate montage and the “reconciliation” finale), the direction generally avoids heavy-handedness, particularly in the sequences showing the two men engaged in their actual work, which prove both fascinating and poignant. (The cultural animus against their occupation might have been explained, however, as they seem to be performing a necessary service that families once did themselves but are no longer equipped to do.)
And the performances are excellent. Wide-eyed, eager Motoki anchors the picture with his open-hearted naivete, and he works nicely with both Hirosue, who’s ebullient without becoming exhausting, and Yamazaki, whose perfectly pitched mixture of gruffness and serenity makes the old coffinman endearingly eccentric. (He’s a bit reminiscent, in both appearance and manner, of Jack Soo.) The rest of the cast are all apt and effective.
Takeshi Hamada’s cinematography takes ample advantage of the sometimes snowy locations, and although the excesses in that montage are his as well as Takita’s, his camera choices in the “coffining” scenes are exquisitely calibrated. The score by Joe Hisaishi, will often lovely, swoons rather too much.
That’s characteristic of a film that occasionally goes saccharine, mostly succeeds in telling an unusual story in an engaging way.