Saturday, August 15, 2009
Departures (おくりびと, Okuribito?) is a 2008 Japanese film by Yōjirō Takita. It won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2009 Oscars and has earned $61,010,217 in Japan as of April 12, 2009.
When "Departures" was announced as the foreign-language Oscar winner in February, it was the first time a film from Japan had won the award in more than 50 years.
Overtaking what were widely considered to be the neck-and-neck front-runners, "Waltz With Bashir" from Israel and "The Class" from France, no one was more surprised to hear "Departures" called than the film's director, Yojiro Takita.
A handful of Oscar prognosticators and insiders had been turning to the film in the final buildup to the event, simply because "Departures" is such an audience-friendly picture. Opening Friday in Los Angeles, "Departures" plays as a gen- tle comedy of manners in its early sections before it slowly transitions into a heart-tugging story of forgiveness and redemption.
When a self-admittedly so-so cello-player (Masahiro Motoki) finds himself unemployed after his orchestra in Tokyo goes out of business, he returns to his small rural hometown. Mistakenly answering an ad for what he thinks is a travel agency, he reluctantly takes a job as an "encoffiner," someone who performs a ceremonial preparation to corpses before burial to ready them for their journey into the afterlife.
At first he hides his new job from his wife and old friends in town. Taken under the wing of his new boss (Tsutomu Yamazaki, familiar to American audiences from the one-time art-house hit "Tampopo"), he comes to appreciate the deeper meaning of his new line of work. Lessons are learned, old wounds healed, etc.
"Departures" has won more than 80 awards from around the globe and has taken in more than $60 million at the Japanese box office.
"There was no way I could have imagined the film would take off like this," Takita said recently through a translator in Los Angeles. "When you have death as a theme, people don't generally tend to get excited about it. So I had no way of knowing how the audience would receive it. We've been fortunate."
The project originated with its star, Motoki, who became taken with a book on the practice of encoffining and thought it would make a good movie. After reading an early draft of the script by Kundo Koyama, Takita, a veteran director with dozens of films to his credit, signed on.
"I knew of the existence of encoffiners, but I had never actually seen it with my own eyes," Takita said. "It's important to emphasize this was not a practice that was very common in Japan at all. It's safe to say that most Japanese people were unfamiliar with the existence of encoffiners before the film came out; it was more of a niche service offered in rural areas."
Yôjirô Takita's Departures was the surprise winner of Best Foreign Film at the 2008 Academy Awards, beating out the urban realism of Lauren Cantet's inner city school drama The Class and Ari Folman's Waltz With Bashir, a personal documentary that recounts a soldier's experience in the Israeli-Lebanon conflict. Departures takes on equally earnest subject matter; the film's title makes reference to the cleansing ritual that prepares dead bodies for burial in Japanese society.
Given its topic, Departures is surprisingly light-hearted: a feel-good film with uplifting music by Joe Hisaish, a composer best known for providing the score to Hayao Miyazaki's animated adventures. For a movie that tackles the subject of death head on, the film has many moments of unmistakable physical comedy.
At the time of the awards ceremony, American audiences had not had a chance to view Departures. In hindsight, the selection makes good sense. The Japanese film is competently made, pleasing to audiences, and in no way controversial. If this sounds critical, it is -- the Academy's choices are usually on the safe side. In 2008, Cristian Mungiu's 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, a difficult but also tremendously powerful film about illegal abortion in Romania, received the prestigious Palme d'Or at Cannes but did not even merit an Oscar nomination.
Departures tells the story of Daigo Kobayashi (Masahiro Motoki), a cellist who loses his job with a symphony in Tokyo and decides to return to his small mountain village with his wife Mika (Ryoko Hirosue) to start over again. Answering an ambiguously worded want ad, Daigo finds himself in the employ of a quirky funeral professional (Tsutomu Yamazaki) who prepares deceased bodies for burial and entry into the next life.
A Lighthearted Approach To Difficult Subject Matter
At first, Daigo is revolted by the work. Many jokes are made at his expense as the squeamish young man learns to become comfortable in the presence of the dead. In Japan, this profession -- one step closer to death than even the undertaker -- is considered especially unclean; Daigo risks becoming a social outcast upon embracing his new employment. Even his wife shuns him.
The film, however, serves to remind the audience that death is very much a part of life. Not only is Daigo's choice of work not to be perceived as dirty, it is unmistakably noble. This point is hammered home. Daigo learns the intrinsic value of his profession from the impassioned gratitude of various mourners. The film documents not only the marked change of perception that Daigo undergoes, but also that of his reluctant wife. By the film's end, Daigo is required to perform numerous departures, the camera following the elaborate cleansing procedure step by painstaking step.
In addition, Daigo frequently plays his childhood cello outdoors in the wilderness of his new environs. The sweeping music and bucolic landscape serve to heap on the emotion to Takita's already heavy-handed manipulation, culminating in the death of Daigo's long lost father. Daigo's new skills serve him well, and the ritual he had previously performed in the service of others brings him much necessary release -- and a neat close to a much too neatly made film.
Starring: Tsutomu Yamazaki, Kimiko Yo, Ryoko Hirosue, Masahiro Motoki
Directed by: Yojiro Takita
Produced by: Yasuhiro Mase, Toshiaki Nakazawa
Running Time: 2 hrs. 11 min.
Posted by Edward Hugh at 1:25 AM