Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Departures Intimate Touch

Departures (Okuribito) is a Japanese film that everyone should see. It is about death and grieving but don't be put off by the subject matter. It's about family, relationships and identity, plus the role of tradition and ritual in everyday lives. The story also explores the role and importance of work in our lives. It does so with a gentle touch and good humour.

This movie has a stellar cast. Masahiro Motoki won the Japan Academy Prize for Best Leading Actor 2008 for his role as cellist turned novice mortician Daigo Kobayashi.

Tsutomu Yamazaki plays his master Ikuei Sasaki. This veteran actor captured the award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance. His best-known role outside Japan is probably that of the trucker in the classic noodle film Tampopo. He continues his romance with food in this part.

Ryoko Hirosue as Daigo's somewhat insipid wife Mika, is a previous best supporting actress winner from 2000. Apparently her fame started with a series of cosmetics advertisements. Coincidentally makeup is a skill that Daigo has to acquire in his new job. It's hard to judge her ability, as this role doesn't offer much with its confining stereotype. It is the weakest part of a mainly robust script. The other major blemish is the predictability of the plot. That seems to be inevitable with this kind of soft-centred drama.

When Daigo's orchestra is disbanded he leaves Tokyo for his small hometown Sakata. There he inadvertently applies for a job in "departures". It turns out to be working in decoffination, a funeral ceremony that prepares the deceased for burial. It is normally conducted with the family and close friends present and involved. The story is his journey of self-discovery as he becomes a professional.

Fortunately there is a current of humour that helps to elevate the movie from the potential for melodrama. Motoki's facial expressions are a key element in pitching the right level of levity in a story that has death as a central theme. The departure ceremony is deftly handled, showing both the intimate and touching side of saying goodbye and the potential for explosive behaviour among the mourners. Both actors perform the elaborate rites in an extremely convincing manner.

Another veteran of Japanese cinema, Kazuko Yoshiyuki, plays bathhouse owner Tsuyako. She refuses to sell her business for condominiums despite pressure from her son. Takashi Sasano brings more cinema experience as her best customer and friend Shokichi, whose own occupation takes on significance at the conclusion of the story. This sub plot builds on the theme of traditional Japanese culture that the film is exploring.

Departures is a moving journey into the world of death and funerals. However, its 130 minutes could have been chopped. The first hour and a half flies by, with tight direction from Yojiro Takita. The last thirty minutes or so is sometimes irritatingly slow and repetitive. For example the giving of stones symbolism is overworked. It has become more than obvious that Daigo's father gave him a rough and heavy burden to carry through life.

It was a unlikely winner of the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film at this year's Oscars. It is a journey that is well worth taking.

(This post was first published at Associated Content)

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