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Where EAST meets the Northwest

THE ART OF DEATH. Departures, director Yōjirō Takita’s Oscar-winning portrait of an unemployed cellist who takes a job preparing bodies for funerals, is playing at the Fox Tower Cinema, located at 846 S.W. Park Avenue in Portland. (Photo courtesy of Regent Releasing)

From The Asian Reporter, V19, #26 (July 7, 2009), page 13.

Departures offers a nuanced look at the death business


Directed by Yōjirō Takita

Produced by Toshiaki Nakazawa

Distributed by Regent Releasing

Now playing at Portland’s Fox Tower Cinema

By Allison Voigts

As the credits rolled at the end of Departures, I wiped away a few tears and turned to my computer to see what film critics had said about the movie. Hands down, they hated it. The New York Times’ A. O. Scott called it "overlong, predictable … and utterly banal." How could a film I found both heartfelt and intelligent have been loathed by so many critics?

In a bit of an upset, Departures, a comedic drama from Japanese director Yōjirō Takita, won the Oscar this year for best foreign-language film, a category that included the highly-acclaimed and experimental Waltz With Bashir and The Class. Critics responded by labelling Departures as just another example of the Academy’s conventional taste.

Awards or no awards, moviegoers enjoyed Departures, and I am one of them. The film follows a young cellist, Daigo Koboyashi (Masahiro Motoki), who takes a job with a mortuary service after the Tokyo orchestra he plays with goes bankrupt. With his young wife Mika (Ryoko Hirosue) in tow, Daigo returns to his hometown in the mountainous northern regions to live in the house his deceased mother left to him.

There Daigo responds to a newspaper ad for a job in "Departures," a term he soon learns does not refer to the travel industry. Lured by high pay and the eagerness of his boss (Mr. Sasaki, played by Tsutomu Yamazaki) to take him on, Daigo decides to try out the position as undertaker’s assistant.

His first couple tasks are unlucky; they reveal all the crude and revolting aspects of the business, and it’s no surprise that afterward Daigo dry heaves at the sight of anything dead, even if it’s his dinner.

But he soon learns from the serious and graceful manner of Mr. Sasaki, who performs the job like a wedding or a tea ceremony, cleaning and preparing each body for burial with smooth but firm motions. At each house, the grieving family is the audience to this performance, often responding with tears, anger, confusion, and even laughter. Mr. Takita clearly compares the mortuary work to art, and Mr. Sasaki and Daigo to master artists.

Unfortunately not everyone in town agrees with this view. When they learn about his new occupation, Daigo’s friends stop speaking to him, and his own wife won’t let him touch her because he is "unclean." The social stigma associated with Daigo’s new job breaks down, though, when his accusers see the precision and beauty of his work. Even the rudest mourners dissolve in gratitude in the end.

Departures does, at times, descend briefly into melodrama. The occasional music montages in which Daigo plays his cello against a backdrop of snowcapped mountains or spring breaking forth can be grating to a western viewer. But overall I found Mr. Takita’s film offers a nuanced look at an unusual subject — sometimes disgusting, sometimes tender, sometimes humorous.

The acting done by the film’s minor characters, including Mr. Sasaki, outshines that of the principles. Mr. Motoki, a likeable enough actor, puts visible effort into his facial expressions, and Ms. Hirosue is bafflingly childish in the first half of the film.

Perhaps Departures resonated with American audiences this year because it is a story we’re all too familiar with — losing the job we thought of as our "dream" and learning to do something we never imagined, often something lowlier in society’s opinion. But as Daigo discovers, maybe what we thought was our calling really wasn’t it at all.

Departures is playing at the Fox Tower Cinema, located at 846 S.W. Park Avenue in Portland. For showtimes, call 1-800- 326-3264, ext. 327.