Thoughts, opinions, and recommendations on (mostly) fantastic movies.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Death in Cinema #1: Departures

"Uh...the job advertisement said departures, so I thought it meant travel agency."

Release Year: 2008
Country: Japan
Genre: Social drama
Director: Yojiro Takita
Screenwriter: Kundo Koyama
Cinematography: Takeshi Hamada
Music: Joe Hisaishi
Editing: Akimasa Kawashima
Actors: Masahiro Motoki, Tsutomu Yamazaki, Ryoko Hirosue

Preparing ceremony and all the traditional rituals for your recently departed family must be one of the most depressing things in life. It is the kind of things that we don't like to plan or think about, and oftentimes when it happens we are so overcame with grief that we hardly have the time nor energy to practice all those rituals (or perhaps don't even have the proper knowledge about it in the first place). Therefore, many of us asked for the help from people who dedicated their life toward preparing and performing rituals for the dead and their family. Departures (Okuribito) is a movie about those people, one of them a young man who previously have no experience or knowledge whatsoever about the whole profession.

Daigo Kobayashi (Motoki), a former cellist in a Tokyo-based orchestra, decided to return to his hometown in Yamagata with his wife Mika (Hirosue) after the orchestra was disbanded. Hoping to start a new career, Daigo answered a newspaper job advertisement for "assisting departures", thinking that it is related to the business of travel agency. To his shock, it turns out that the job actually deals with the preparing of dead people or the "departed". Daigo reluctantly accepted, and from there he learn the art and trades of departure ritual under his much experienced boss Sasaki (Yamazaki), while hiding the truth from his wife and dealing with the negative stigma often associated with people who cleaned up and prepared dead bodies.

Departures opens with a strong and memorable prologue, showing Daigo and Sasaki preparing a female corpse...who turns out to be a 'he' instead of a 'she'. The scene establishes the early tone of the movie: solemn and poignant, yet also capable of occasional humor that somehow does not feel inappropriate or out-of-place. From the prologue, the movie goes back in time and shows Daigo's backstory, how he landed the job and his early struggles in adapting with the peculiar new job. It is overall a remarkably fine start, boosted by Motoki's expressive acting as Daigo. He is instantly likable as a main character and easily generate laughs and chuckles with all the flailing around while learning the ropes of the job (comedic highlights include Daigo's "job interview" with Sasaki, and when Daigo has to role-play as a corpse for a TV demonstration).

The early part of Departures is not only a good black comedy, but also an effective introduction to the art of Japanese departure rituals. The embalming, make-up application, wrapping, and cremation of dead bodies are presented meticulously in methodical steps throughout the movie. It also raises the issue of how the practice (specifically those who perform it as profession) is considered taboo in Japan, which becomes an important part and main source of conflict in the story. Presumably, the line of work implies something foul both in physical (coming in touch with dead bodies extensively) and conceptual (getting paid for the suffering of others) sense, and this makes for an interesting cultural observation.

There is also an underlying theme of death in more abstract form, as represented by the end of Daigo's dream to be a world-renowned cellist. Yet, the movie not only shows the quiet resignation of somebody who lost his primary goal and had to start over from a blank slate, but also implies that just like how the memories of our late beloved ones linger, remnants of a dead dream will also remain and should stay with us (it may be interesting to note that I watched Whisper of The Heart--a Japanese animation movie about the birth of a dream--not long before this, and the two movies' themes connected really well). The idea is demonstrated in several great scenes when Daigo busts out his cello and plays it with a wistful look in his eyes. The cello music, by the way, sounds very beautiful and is a perfect fit to the theme and overall mood.

Unfortunately, I find the movie to weaken as it introduces a series of sub-plots involving Daigo's missing father, the strained relationship with his wife (who eventually discover what is he really up to), and his old friend who started to abhors him when Daigo's job becomes common knowledge. Those sub-plots might be hampered by a clumsy use of foreshadowing; hinting future events in a story can be great if used sparingly and effectively, but Departures is kind of bad at this. There are some instances of dialogues or events in the middle part that very obviously telegraph what will happen by the end, and it simply killed my sense of anticipation. Not to mention that some of the characters (especially Mika the wife) are relatively weak.

All things considered though, Departures is a very fine movie that manages to make its concept much more engrossing, enlightening, and funnier than it seems; especially during the first half hour. The ending, while weakened by the predictable and at times melodramatic narrative choices, still carries some emotional punch and poignancy with it.

Amusing yet introspective, resigned yet hopeful, quiet yet lively; it is an elegant reflection of a sacred ceremony and the art of letting go.

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