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Out of Frame: Departures

Having not seen all of the movies nominated for the Best Foreign Film category at the Oscars this year, I thought that the Academy missed the ball by not even including the chilling Gomorra, which did win the Golden Globe in the category. Few expected that, of the films that were nominated, Okuribito, released in the United States as Departures, would win. Directed by Yôjirô Takita, who got his start making porn movies about molesters on commuter trains, the film is an unlikely comedy about a failed cellist who finds fulfillment as an encoffiner, a sort of contractor hired by undertakers in Japan to carry out the ritual placement of a dead body into the casket. After seeing the movie recently, however, it is easy to see why it succeeded with members of the Academy.

The story is a coming-of-age tale, with the clumsy Daigo Kobayashi, played with charm and great comic timing by Masahiro Motoki, learning how to come to terms with his guilt over missing his mother's funeral while studying abroad and learning how to forgive his father for abandoning him as a child. When his orchestra disbands, the latest casualty of the worldwide financial crisis, Daigo is forced to tell his wife, Mika, played with irrepressible cuteness by Ryoko Hirosue, that he owes a large sum of money on a new cello. They move from the big city back to the village where he grew up, launching a voyage into his emotional past. Without really knowing how it happened, Daigo is hired as an assistant to Ikuei Sasaki, played with laconic wit by Tsutomu Yamazaki, whom you may remember from Tampopo, and learns the art of helping families cope with the departure of loved ones.

It is explained in the film that the preparation of a dead body -- washing, dressing in a sumptuous robe, arrangement of the face and hands, application of makeup to the face -- used to be done by family members in Japan. As the country modernized, undertakers took over more and more of these roles, and the taboo of touching dead bodies as a way of making an income is still strong. Even so, the thought of Americans watching as someone ritually prepares a loved one's body for cremation seems even stranger. The subtext of the movie is the death of something else, the traditions of old Japan, evoked as Daigo reconnects with his past: the public bath house, the veneration of ancestors, the reverence of nature. A certain nostalgia comes through in the way that Takeshi Hamada shoots the exteriors, a misty monochromaticism, with plenty of reference to the subjects of traditional Japanese art, like mountains, bridges, flying geese, cherry blossoms.

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For a film that is so thoroughly inundated with death, Departures is surprisingly funny, although the overall feeling it leaves behind is sadness, not overwhelming despondency but a sort of gloomy awareness of the finality of death. The script by Kundo Koyama seems well crafted, at least in translation, although the movie overstays its welcome by about fifteen minutes. The tendency toward emotional manipulation becomes heavy-handed toward the end, but there is no need to specify any further because you will surely feel its tentacles pulling at your own tear-ducts. Part of the emotional punch of those scenes is due to a gorgeous, string-heavy score by Joe Hisaishi, which shows the influence of Western classical music in Asia. Its main theme, a pop-influenced vocalise for cello and piano (sample here), was an instant hit. The saccharine indulgences are an unfortunate misstep, because fewer feel-good cliches could have made this movie something excellent, rather than merely good.

Departures opens this Friday at Landmark Bethesda Row, on June 19.

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