Yôjirô Takita's Departures has come under siege since its startling upset at the 81st Academy Awards, beating out critical favorites The Class and Waltz with Bashir to win best foreign film. Such a blow to the critical consensus hadn't been dealt since Bosnia's No Man's Land beat out Amélie in 2001. Is a special brand of resentment justified in this latest case? Hardly. Any film lover who has watched the Oscars with any sort of interest over the years knows that, in the 62 years since the Academy began recognizing foreign accomplishments, they have rarely bestowed the award on films that deserve the attention.
Set mostly in an overtly nostalgic and gloomy section of Yamagata, Departures concentrates on the disassembling and retooling in the life of goofy Kobayashi (Masahiro Motoki, fitfully quirky), a cellist living in Tokyo with his wife until his orchestra disbands. The abrupt case of unemployment sparks the idea of leaving the city for his childhood home of Sakata. His wife Mika (Ryoko Hirosue) is very understanding, relieved even by the prospect of not having to pay rent in her late mother-in-law's house.
When Kobayashi discovers an ad for a job "helping people with their journeys" with no experience required, he thinks he has found a juicy gig as a travel agent. After a short talk with his new employer (Tsutomu Yamazaki, competently deadpanning), Kobayashi finds that he has instead become an encoffening assistant. Shamed by the idea of making a living from death, he continues the high-paying job but keeps it a secret from everyone, including Mika.
Too long by a solid 30 minutes and riddled with clichés of every creed and color, Takita's film is not so much a bad movie as it is a fatally benign one. It is fascinating, however, to note that in a movie that focuses on a character scared of being thought of as benefitting from death, the film uses the dead to make the living look better. There are scenes between the young assistant and his employer that are nicely fitted with nickel-store philosophizing but they are overshadowed by scenes of severe insincerity and pointless over-emoting, not to mention the outright laughable montage that features Kobayashi defiantly playing his cello on a hill overlooking a country road.
Mark Johnson, the chairman of the foreign-film section of the Academy, recently commented, in a retort to Departures more relentless critics, that "the emotional will always trump the cerebral." If the definition of emotional has been relegated strictly to mean sentimental, then I can see where Johnson is going with awarding Takita's film, but that isn't really my problem. What bothers me is the idea that Departures is a major accomplishment of any sort: This is rigid and bloated Hollywood structure given the novelty of being made in Japan. By recognizing films like Departures and not films like Revanche or Waltz with Bashir, we have ostensibly thanked foreign filmmakers for being allegiant to Hollywood. Thus, a film simply being not-God-awful is rewarded, forever vindicated, and continues unabated.
I once saw a movie called Amelie...