WHAT IT’S ABOUT?
Daigo loses his job in a symphony orchestra and decides to take off in new directions. He moves back to his hometown with his wife and answers an ad with the word “departures” thinking it’s for a glamorous job in the travel industry. It turns out to be an open position for an “encoffiner ” who prepares people for cremation. Needing money and taking on this new challenge without telling his wife he soon develops a new respect for people of all kinds one that will come in handy when the emotional issues of life and death hit very close to home.
WHO’S IN IT?
As the reluctant undertaker Masahiro Motoki is wonderfully understated and sensitive as his own frustrations give way to a deeply satisfying and sometimes painful new lease on life. His low-key performance is perfectly pitched for this beautifully spare drama and never seems forced or out of touch with the character. As his wife Mika Ryoko Hirosue is deeply touching earning audience sympathy and quiet respect. Tsutomu Yamazaki has the other major role as Daigo’s new boss and he’s droll and wise mentoring his new employee and subtly introducing him to a foreign world he never knew existed.
Director Yojiro Tokita has worked in a variety of film genres but nothing prepares you for the lyrical rhythms of Departures an enlightening and deeply satisfying movie of many small unexpected pleasures. If the deliberate pacing seems slow give it a chance to creep up on you. This is a film that doesn’t wear its heart on its sleeve but earns our tears honestly and in real time. It’s ruminations on how we die — and how we live — while rooted in Japanese culture and customs that couldn't be more universal or relatable to anyone with a pulse.
With the imprimatur of a newly minted Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film and 10 Japanese Academy Awards expectations may be too high for American audiences. This is a deceptively simple story sparingly told with dignity and wisdom. Hopefully moviegoers outside of Japan (where it has been an enormous local hit) will embrace it for what it is and see a bit of their own experience in the richly rewarding journey of Daigo.
It’s surprise win over stiff competition at this year’s Oscars was the biggest upset of the evening and proof that a movie with this kind of sincerity and solitude can trump the most formidable competition.
NETFLIX OR MULTIPLEX?
Considering the endangered species status of foreign language films in most American theaters it would be nice to support one as good as this and hope there’s more where it came from.
Masao (Yusuke Sekiguchi) spends his summer vacation running away from
home and searching for the mother he never knew. A nosy neighbor sends
her no-good husband Kikujiro (Beat Takeshi) to look after the boy but
instead causes more trouble as the two hitchhike gamble and swindle
their way across Japan. Along the way the pair encounter a bizarre
collection of characters transforming the film into a sort of kooky
Asian "Wizard of Oz.
The players rise to the challenge of a script sparse in dialogue
effectively conveying character through expression and making the film
less dependent on its subtitles. Young Sekiguchi is especially
captivating employing few words and a face cuter and rounder than
Pikachu. Sekiguchi’s performance equals the fine young thespians in
foreign faves "Ponette" and "Ma Vie en Rose." Takeshi is alternately
sleazy and funny as the bumbling custodian neglecting and exploiting
his charge while sincerely caring. Mercifully he never succumbs to the
curmudgeon-with-a-heart-of-gold cliché plaguing too many Hollywood
dramas. Despite decades of age difference the duo gel onscreen for this
effective and unusual buddy movie
Writer/director/editor Takeshi Kitano unfurls his story slowly possibly
turning off blockbuster-bred American audiences. (If it’s mainstream
you’re looking for it’s unlikely you’d be cooling your heels for two
hours in front of a Japanese-language film.) Kitano rewards the patient
with believable characters comical moments and a rarely seen look at
modern Japan free of high-tech terror flashy city lights and
generational family conflicts