by HELEN GEIB
Daigo Kobayashi has just moved back to his rural hometown from Tokyo. He and his wife are living in his boyhood home, which he inherited from his mother. He is looking for a new line of work after giving up his dream of forging a career as a professional cellist. He sees a help wanted ad for an open position in “departures.” The job description is cryptic, but the promise of good pay, full-time work, and no experience necessary is highly attractive. He figures the job probably has something to do with travel agencies, and goes for an interview. He is hired on the spot.
Then he discovers “departures” was a misprint that should have read “the departed” and he’s been hired to assist in the ritual preparation of the body before the deceased is put into a coffin to be cremated. As the office manager summarizes, it’s a niche market in the funerary business. His panicked eyes betray his wish to get out before this goes any further, but the cash advance and the hard-sell by his calmly assertive new employer persuade him to give the job a chance.
As the camera closely follows Daigo in the performance of his job, it tracks his gradually increasing skill and absorption in the work; we watch as he discovers a profound emotional affinity for it. It is unexpectedly his true calling. Initially reluctant, after only a couple of months he refuses to quit even in the face of social opprobrium based in enduring taboos surrounding touching the “unclean” dead. He pulls the cello he played as a child out of storage and begins to play again.
The ritual is an expression of respect for the dead. Performed before the mourners, it is also an occasion for leave-taking; the family is invited to participate as well as to observe. The title carries the familiar association of death with the beginning of the soul’s final journey, but there are also mundane departures. The most significant is Daigo’s father’s abandonment of the family when his son was six. His work prepares Daigo for a belated emotional reconciliation with that early death-resembling loss, a character trajectory gradually revealed as the film’s central storyline.
While the film is predominantly dramatic, the filmmakers recognize the humor of Daigo’s situation as a happenstance recruit into the “encoffinment” profession. Many scenes are played for low-key laughs, including some of the scenes of Daigo and his boss at work: mordant grave-side comedy of the dysfunctional family variety.
The filmmaking is a mix of the subtle and the obvious. Among the former is the unobtrusive camerawork (the film was directed by Yojiro Takita, following up on the critical and commercial successes Onmyoji and When the Last Sword is Drawn) and delicate teasing out of the emotional undercurrents in Daigo’s relationships with his wife and boss, a genial father-figure type played by Tsutomu Yamazaki. Particularly impressive is Masahiro Motoki’s quietly dominant performance as Daigo, the sympathetic heart of Departures.
The obvious includes a redundant, but fortunately infrequent voiceover narration by Daigo and an orchestral score that swells on cue for the heavy emotional scenes. I prefer a more restrained scoring and the narration is a distraction, but ultimately these are minor criticisms of a deeply affecting film.
3 1/2 stars
Note: Departures was the winner of numerous awards at the Japanese Academy Awards, prominently including Best Film, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actor, and Best Supporting Actor. It was also the winner of the Best Foreign Language Film category at the Academy Awards for 2008.