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This Year’s Surprise Oscar Winner For Best Foreign Film

Masahiro Motoki and Tsutomu Yamazaki prepare a body for burial in

Credit: Regent Releasing

Above: Masahiro Motoki and Tsutomu Yamazaki prepare a body for burial in "Departures"

Earlier this year, "Departures" surprised many by beating out Israel's "Waltz with Bashir" for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. But the win may be the reason that this quiet Japanese film is actually getting released here in the U.S.

"Departures" is a slight film and I don't mean that as either a criticism or a sign of disrespect. Instead I use the term to prepare you for a certain delicacy the film reflects about Japanese culture. But it's the film's occasional sentimentality and its lack of artistic boldness that make me wish that "Waltz with Bashir" had walked home with the Academy Award earlier this year. But if you are familiar with what tends to win Oscars, it is probably the film's sentimentality that won over the voters and secured its win.

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Regent Releasing


Daigo Kobayashi (Masahiro Motoki) is a cellist who has just bought an expensive instrument. It seems a sign of his dedication to his recently acquired job in an orchestra. But the orchestra keeps playing to a near empty house and the owner is forced to dissolve the company. So Daigo reluctantly sells his cello to rid himself of the huge debt and seeks new employment. Although it's a sad moment, Daigo also feels a certain liberation. He answers an ad for something involving “departures,” and he assumes it has to do with a travel agency. But to his surprise, it's a job as a "Nokanshi" or "encoffineer," a funeral professional involving preparing deceased bodies for burial and entry into the next life. He initially keeps the job a secret but when the secret gets out he discovers how many people, including his wife, think it's a horrible line of work and that he needs to quit. But Daigo discovers something else, that he likes the job and that it suits him in an odd way.

The film's inspired by Japanese author Shinmon Aoki's mortician memoir, "Coffinman." Director Yojiro Takita makes this adaptation one that's quietly respectful yet not without humor. The first encoffining we see strikes us as an exquisitely beautiful ceremony, almost like an elegant magic act in which the deceased is undressed, cleaned, and prepared for burial through an amazing slight of hand. The process is hypnotic. But Takita also undercuts this with gentle humor as Daigo discovers that the young woman he is preparing is actually a young man. So, with the utmost dignity and discretion, the family of the deceased is asked which make up would they prefer, that for a woman or for a man? That scene defines the movie at its best as it subtly navigates through Japanese culture and customs.

Motoki's Daigo is something of a blank canvas as he adapts to his new job and tries to learn the trade. Tsutomu Yamazaki as his mentor Mr. Sasaki is a delight. He both pushes Daigo and offers him compassionate support. Yamazaki's Sasaki is one who takes great pride in his work and who understand it's importance to the living who often don't know how to say goodbye to a loved one. Director Takita finds some unexpectedly lovely and touching moments in the silent scenes involving the funeral process. In one sequence Sasaki seems to bring the dead back to life as he restores beauty and luster to a wife and mother who has just died. These moments as well as ones in a public bath work exceeding well.

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Regent Releasing

Masahiro Motoki learns from Tsutomu Yamazaki in "Departures"

But the film falters when it tries to deal too directly with the emotions of the main characters. So long as the film is dealing with Daigo's job and focusing on the unique details of his task, the film is delicate and clever, mixing visual beauty with both humor and commentary. But when confronting Daigo's marital problems or his unresolved conflicts with his father, the subtly gives way to sentimentality. These moments don't ruin the film but they stand out in contrast because so much of the film is handled with such care.

"Departures" (rated PG-13 for thematic material and is in Japanese with English subtitles) offers a meticulous portrait of the process of casketing bodies for cremation and uses that to present a larger portrait of Japanese culture and discovering the joys of life. Director Takita delivers some wonderfu, wordless sequences that make us think about life and living, and how the process of saying good bye to a loved one can be very important. There's a moment

Companion viewing: "Kissed," "The Loved One," " Ososhiki (The Funeral)," "Monday"

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