Departures (Regent Releasing, NR)

film_departures_sm.jpgThe score by Joe Hisaishi could be in the SAT antonym list opposite "subtle."








Usually winning an Academy Award is good news for a film’s reputation, but in the case of Yojiro Takita’s Departures, the opposite may be true: So many people became upset that it beat out The Class and Waltz With Bashir for Best Foreign Language Film that the bad blood might have hurt the film’s credibility (although perhaps not ticket sales) more than winning the Oscar boosted it.

Well, life is just full of paradoxes, and in the ultimate irony one of the themes of Departures in its better moments is just how strange and paradoxical life can be. It frequently feels like two films, one which is a perceptive and naturalistic study of modern life in Japan, and one which is an animated Hallmark card of montages and soaring strings (the score by Joe Hisaishi could be in the SAT antonym list opposite "subtle") which goes on much too long while never missing an opportunity to hammer on a symbol or tug on a heartstring. Sad to say, I think the latter film is the one which was awarded the Oscar, but the former is by far the better work of art.

As the story begins, cellist Daigo Kobayashi (Masahiro Motoko) has just lost his job because his orchestra disbanded, presumably due to poor revenues since we observe them performing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony to a largely empty hall. He has to tell his wife Mika (Ryoko Hirosue) not only that he has become unemployed, but also that he took out a large loan to pay for his cello. This latter point is the first of two major deceptions on his part, but she’s remarkably supportive when he wants to ditch it all (including her job in Tokyo) in order to move back to his hometown in the northern countryside.

Fortunately, Daigo inherited a house when his mother died, so they set up housekeeping and he looks for work. Answering an ad which he believes is for a travel company, he soon finds himself working for a firm which prepares bodies for funerals, performing an elaborate ceremony of washing and clothing the corpse in the presence of the grieving family. After getting over his initial repulsion, Daigo finds that he has a gift for this work, which plays an important role in allowing people to achieve closure after the death of a loved one.

Yet he conceals the nature of his work form his wife. The reason is only hinted at in Departures, but the truth is that certain professions in Japan carry a severe social stigma, and undertaking is one of those professions. Even worse, it is associated with an outcast class of people known as the burakumin whose very existence is a taboo topic in Japanese media but who still suffer discrimination in present-day Japan, particularly with regard to employment and marriage. Remarkably, Daigo seems to be unaware of this prejudice, but others are not. Once she find out, Mika demands that he find other work, and a childhood friend drops him like a shot when he learns what Daigo does for a living.

The first 90 minutes or so of Departures remains firmly rooted in reality and are often wickedly funny. The first ceremony we see Daigo perform involves a beautiful young woman who turns out to be a man, and his boss (Tsutomu Yamazaki) must ask the family whether they should make up the body as a man or a woman. On his second day, Daigo must pose as a corpse for an instructional film on undertaking, and of course he gets shaving cream up his nose and sneezes on camera. And while people should be on their best behavior at a funeral, sometimes it has the opposite effect, and settling old scores can lead to absolute brawls.

You may wonder why Daigo is drawn to this socially undesirable profession. The truth is that he also requires healing, and helping others deal with their grief allows him reconnect with himself and his past. This takes us into the second movie, which is not content to convey meaning through the characters and their actions but must pound us with symbolic montages and soaring strings while Daigo heals himself. Remember the poster shot of a man playing cello in an open field? That’s from one of the montages, and announces with all the subtlety of a brick that Daigo has reconnected with his soul because he has returned to playing music.

And about that Oscar? It just goes to show that only studio publicists should take the Academy Awards seriously, because I can think of at least ten foreign language films released last year which were better than this one. So if you want to win an Oscar and don’t have a script involving a handicapped Holocaust survivor, be sure to lard on the sentiment and underline your Big Themes repeatedly, because subtlety will get you nowhere with the Academy voters. | Sarah Boslaugh

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