(No longer in theaters)
Yasuhiro Mase, Toshiaki Nakazawa, Toshihisa Watai
May 29, 2009
With editing software, you can now transfer films to your computer and recut them, which means someone could lop off 45 minutes of this year’s Oscar-winning foreign-language feature Departures and turn it into a half-decent movie. It has a sublime premise, full of the potential for both beauty and horror. A failed professional cellist, Daigo (Masahiro Motoki), returns from Tokyo to his hometown and answers an ad for what looks like a travel agency. But in this case, “departures” means an elaborate postmortem ritual in which, before the eyes of the deceased’s family, the body is elaborately washed, made up, and “encoffined.” Daigo takes the job of assisting the brusque owner (Tsutomu Yamazaki) and quickly becomes a pariah—“unclean” even in the eyes of his chirpy, supportive little wife (Ryoko Hirosue). Yet on he stumbles. Miserable at the outset, he comes to see that the service he performs is vital, even holy—that watching a loved one encoffined provides the typically buttoned-up Japanese family with a blessed release.
The director, Yôjirô Takita, is known for juxtaposing high emotion and low comedy, and Departures suggests he could take a little off from each end—less cheap tear-jerking, fewer cheap laughs. One scene builds to a shockingly unfunny gag: Daigo works on what he thinks is a beautiful young girl and then, under the sheet, bumps up against “her” male organ. The director takes a sharp turn into bathos, as the disapproving father finally accepts his son/daughter and weeps. It’s only a matter of time before Daigo’s duck-voiced wife watches him work with tears in her eyes and understands the nobility of this “art.” We can see the climax, in which Daigo makes postmortem peace with an estranged family member, zombie-shuffling toward us for about an hour.
What’s sad is that this really is an amazing foundation: The metaphor for loss is right there onscreen. It will resonate with anyone who has ever buried a loved one and struggled to reconcile the myriad emotions—grief, anger, helplessness. Which is to say, everyone. And yet out of this premise comes glop. Departures needed a little more work in the morgue—like cutting to the bone.