Wednesday, July 8, 2009


Yojiro Takita's "Departures" is a sentimental and at times hilarious film, that falls away due to its lack of real substance in between scenes. It's a beautiful film, and I really enjoyed it, but between the more important events, the fill-ins were sudsy. There's really a lot of potential in this tragicomic movie, but most of it goes unused. Daigo Kobayashi (Mashiro Motoki) is a cellist in an orchestra. He needs to keep going so he can pay off his expensive, “professional” cello. Unfortunately, the group is disbanded. I don’t believe that why this is ever quite explained (perhaps it’s the lack of attendance, I really don’t know). Out of a job, he sells his instrument and moves back into his dead mother’s house with his wife Mika (Ryoko Hirosue). When he finds a very unspecific ad about “departures” requiring no experience, Daigo decides to check it out. What he finds is something he wouldn’t have imagined. When he meets the boss, he’s immediately hired and given a lot of cash. The boss (Tsutomu Yamazaki) then tells him the ad wasn’t for “departures,” but for “the departed.” Daigo finally realizes he’s gotten into the funeral business. The ritual of what the Japanese call “encoffinment” is a beautiful thing. It involves cleaning the body for death and enshrouding and all of that, but it’s done in a graceful manner that’s captivating. I wish that Takita had let those scenes speak for themselves, instead of with massive amounts of cello music almost every time. I mean, it’s fine a couple times, but to let beauty stand on its own is a more powerful method. Daigo is at first alienated by the touching of the dead, like most other people. He gets a rough couple of jobs to start off, and is forced into recording a bizarre instructional video about his trade. As he goes along, however, he learns the importance of body, and also to get used to handling these corpses. Predictably, he keeps this information away from his wife. At the beginning, when the film is a comedy, this works out (mostly because of the way he conceals it), but as it starts becoming a bigger and bigger plot point, it feels old. There’s also a colossal backstory here: Daigo was abandoned by his father when he was six and was cared for by his mother. When they did live together (which we don’t know a heck of lot about, and the scenes that are done here are brief and vague), he seemed to play a lot of cello for them. They also went to a public bathhouse. These baths have a bigger role throughout the film, and this I believe was the most heartwarming development. Here the film had me in its figurative grasp, but it let me go very soon. Speaking more of the film’s comedy towards the beginning, the film unfortunately doesn’t carry on this way. There are a couple of scenes involving food that are delightful in the true meaning of the word, but the feeling changes. I guess that’s uniform, but I liked the beginning better. How everything in between plays out is sad, and I mean sadly developed. These scenes needed major strengthening. So much attention is put on the funerals that everything else is undernourished. It was sad to see a great premise go to waste since the filling was too tepid. Even though the film clocks in at 130 minutes, it still feels rushed. If you gave some time to reflect (not involving cello), perhaps in a visual way, it would make everything a lot more spacious, and perhaps fixing the really awful pacing that was nipping at the quality at nearly every minute. Well, “Departures” is a very likeable movie, but it’s hard to get swept in it because of its impairing speed. It won many awards: 10 Japanese Academy Awards, the Audience Awards at the Hawaii International and the Palm Springs Festival, and, among others, the hotly contested Best Foreign Language Film award at the Academy Awards. This final accolade caused quite a bit of steam. A yet unreleased film had upset the more high profile works up there (including the amazing “Waltz With Bashir”) apparently due to the fact that the Academy’s policies had changed, forcing voters to watch every film (a rule that sounds pretty good to me). I can see why it pulled ahead, and why “Gomorrah” neglected to be nominated: pure sentiment. I agree with A.O. Scott of the New York Times: it was interesting to see really what makes the committee tick. C

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