Departures won the Best Foreign Language Oscar in a year when Waltz With Bashir was a strong contender. It’s not hard to see why Departures won. It deals with an unusual and potentially ‘difficult’ subject in a light and sometimes comedic way. It also has that crucial element that seems to make American audiences happy – a father-son (and a surrogate father-son) relationship in the background that comes to the fore at the end. I enjoyed the film but overall it was possibly too cloying for me. The worst aspect was a score by the usually excellent Joe Hisaishi which didn’t work for me at all.
The story is fairly straightforward. Daigo (Motoki Masahiro) is a man in his thirties who is forced to give up a career as a professional cellist when his orchestra is wound up. However, he is relieved to have to sell his expensive instrument because he was never sure that he had the talent to be a great player. With his wife Mika, Daigo decides to leave Tokyo and to return to the small town where he grew up (Sakata in Yamagata prefecture on the west coast of Honshu) and where his mother has bequeathed him the old coffee-house that his absent father bought before running off with a waitress. Daigo then stumbles into a job that, as the English title of the film implies, he hoped was in the travel business but which turns out to be about the departure of the souls of the dead. Diago becomes the person who prepares the deceased for their coffin – in view of the family and via strict procedures/rituals.
The drama comes from the perceived social status of the job. At first Daigo doesn’t tell Mika where he is going and later an old schoolfriend tells him to “get a normal job”. Clearly there is a taboo about handling the dead just as there is in the West. The best parts of the film involve the boss of the funeral preparation business and his secretary/office manager, both of whom are interesting characters. Mika is pretty but rather vacuous and Daigo experiences everything stoically. Flashbacks reveal that he learned the cello as a child and he still has the child-size cello which he plays in a montage of outdoor shots as well as at home and for his colleagues over Christmas dinner. The story is quite conventional with each negative experience matched by something positive. The snowy landscapes of the plains and the mountains in the distance certainly add to viewing pleasure.
For me, the interesting aspect of the story is the discourse about employment and work status. As I understand it, the job which Diago learns to respect is actually a relatively recent invention and it is paired in the story with a traditional bath house operation which Diago remembers from his childhood. I won’t spoil the narrative by exploring the links between the two operations but this theme links Departures to those films that have directly addressed the pressures on traditional Japanese ideas about loyalty to employers and a ‘job for life’ (e.g. Tokyo Sonata, also from 2008).
Writer Koyama Kundô has a background in television and director Takita Yôjirô is a veteran of Japanese cinema. His credits suggest a background in popular genres. Direction of the actors in the film is fine and it is the script that is more problematic (and the pacing). In one short sequence in the film I noted a perfect combination of acting, camerawork and editing that made a point economically and with emotion. Yet a few minutes later a very clumsy jumpcut almost destroyed another scene. The DP had worked with the director several times, so how did this happen? Departures is good, solid entertainment – what used to be called ‘middlebrow entertainment’ in the UK. It reminded me of the charming Shall We Dansu? (1996) – in which Motoki Masahiro had a small part. In that sense Departures is a worthy Oscar winner – but not necessarily an example of cinematic art to set the pulse racing. Just enjoy!