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.