When Japanese director Yōjirō Takita’s Departures won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, upsetting perceived front runners from Israel (Waltz with Bashir) and France (The Class), a lot of collective eyebrows were raised by critics, bloggers, cineastes, and Oscarphiles. At that time, very few people had seen the film, and suddenly this underdog mystery from Japan was on everyone’s lips. It wasn’t long after the Oscar ceremony that this writer caught up with the film, coming in with pretty high expectations, though knowing the Academy’s track record of awarding treacly tearjerkers over much higher quality films, suspicion was also in the mix. And indeed, there are many who would say that is exactly what “Departures” is (treacly), and to some degree they would be right. Takata’s film is absolutely shameless and borderline manipulative, a film filled with improbable coincidences that threaten to dissolve into sappy, sentimental mush. But, strangely enough, it all ends up working.
Until roughly the halfway point, the film is ready to be written off as a schmaltzy misfire, but then something curious happens — a montage (yes, a montage; that most hoary of cinematic cliches) comes along and lifts the film up on the wings of Joe Hisaishi’s glorious, cello-driven score. From that moment on, Depatures’ essential beauty manifests itself, and it goes straight for the heart. The film tells the story of Daigo Kobayashi (Masahiro Motoki), a cellist who finds himself jobless when his orchestra goes out of business during an economic downturn. Out of work and desperate to find steady, reliable employment, Daigo turns to the want ads, where he finds an advertisement for a business wanting help with “departures.” When he inquires about the business, however, he finds himself hired on the spot before realizing that “departures” means “the departed” — he is to assist in helping prepare bodies for burial. Daigo is initially appalled at the idea, but with work scarce, he begrudgingly takes the job. He’s so embarrassed, however, that he hides his occupation from his adoring wife, Mika (Ryoko Hirosue), for fear of bringing shame to her due to his lowly status. Meanwhile, Daigo’s boss, Sasaki (Tsutomu Yamazaki), is completely unfazed by the public’s perception of his service. His goal is to give the departed a final, honorable send-off, and to provide a necessary and comforting service to their families. His adherence to ritual and courtesy soon rubs off on Daigo, who becomes devoted to his job, even as it threatens to estrange him from his friends and family. But everyone must experience death, and soon those around Daigo begin to understand the power and importance of what he does.
Still, this is not to say that Departures is in the same league as other Foreign Language Film nominees — or even entrants. It’s certainly no masterpiece, but is rather merely solid entertainment, the kind of thing that is easy to roll your eyes at, even while you may possibly be wiping away a tear. In that regard, it’s highly effective in its aims, which is to say it’s not a film for the cynical; it’s the kind of thing you just have to surrender to and let it take you on its journey. The structure is a bit clunky, driven by slightly awkward narration and some obvious plot twists, but by the time it reaches its deeply moving (if improbable) finale, it has pulled a complete hat trick, sneaking in and stealing the audience’s heart just when they least expect it. Departures is a charming, winning piece of filmmaking that, while in no way deserving of the title of Best Foreign Language film or any exaggerated accolades, is still a heartwarming, sometimes bittersweet tale that hits most of the right notes.
Last Word: Departures is a highly effective, if shamelessly manipulative, tearjerker, but is nevertheless a winning and uplifting charmer.