Departures Movie Review
In the end, it's powerfully moving, and perhaps a bit too nice.
When his orchestra goes bust, young cellist Daigo (Motoki) and his smiley wife Mika (Hirosue) decide to move back to Daigo's hometown, where they can live in his family home. Daigo's mother died a couple of years earlier, and he hasn't seen his father since he was 6. He answers an ad in the newspaper for a job working with "departures", but this isn't a travel agency, as his new boss Sasaki (Yamazaki) teaches him the art of encoffining, preparing dead bodies for burial. And Mika isn't happy about this.
There are several fascinating elements to this story, most notably as we experience Daigo's initial revulsion for the task, which gives way to the realisation that this elegant ritual offers compassion and dignity to families at their lowest point. Each ceremony has a different twist to it, and director Takita shows us the details in an unfussy, almost stately way while coyly averting the eyes from anything yucky or tasteless.
This gives the film's first half a sharply comical tone, which plays out through Motoki's sometimes slapstick acting and Yamazaki's ability to hilariously steal scenes by doing virtually nothing at all. And there are vivid side characters too, from grieving relatives to Daigo's old friends. And of course, eventually a few plot strands kick in as Daigo and Mika's marriage is pushed and pulled in various ways and as Daigo discovers new things about himself and his job.
Parts of the film have a cheesy charm, while other sequences feel overlong or sentimental (one mid-point montage is rather sappy). But when the final events start to unfold, we realise that we've been set up for some serious emotional intensity, because we can see ourselves and our loved ones in these situations.
And we are forced to wonder why, in Western society, we prefer that our deceased loved ones are dealt with out of sight. That's this film's real power, and why it beat four better movies for the Foreign Film Oscar.