- Directed by Yojiro Takita
- Written by Kundo Koyama
- Starring Masahiro Motoki, Tsutomu Yamazaki, Ryoko Hirosue
- Classification: 14A
You'll see dead people, lots of dead people, in Departures, but at no point in its 131 minutes will this cause you to gasp in horror or avert your gaze shoeward.
Surprise winner of the Oscar for best foreign-language film in February, Departures is, in fact, a gentle movie, a marshmallow drama of decidedly measured pace, predictable plot and watercolour tones about Daigo Kobayashi (Masahiro Motoki), an unemployed Tokyo musician who discovers personal fulfilment working as a mortician of sorts in a small city in northern Japan.
The city is Kobayashi's hometown, where his deceased mother used to run a modest bar and from which his father deserted the family when Daigo, an only child, was just 6. Broke, recently laid off as a cellist with a struggling orchestra, Daigo and his gamine-like wife, Mika (Ryoko Hirosue), convert the bar into their home and soon, in one of those fateful accidents that's part of the very warp and woof of the history of cinema, Daigo finds himself working as the assistant to the elderly Mr. Sasaki (Tsutomu Yamazaki). He's the town's "encoffiner," gruff but benign, charged with the preparation of corpses for cremation.
At first Daigo doesn't know if he's up for the job. He also tries to keep it secret from his wife, fearing (correctly) that she might be ashamed of his new "unclean" profession even as she enjoys the money it brings. But in short order it's clear Daigo's a natural and the tasks of washing, disrobing, enrobing and "refreshing" the corpse are a dignified ritual of calming, hypnotic grace, with sleights of hand bordering on the magicianly.
Indeed, these encoffinments are Departures' s most arresting moments, emotionally and visually, as Daigo (and the audience) come to learn that every preparation is at once the same and different. Also compelling is director Yojiro Takita's loving attention to the textures, tastes and behaviours of semi-rural Japan, to the idiosyncrasies of its built and natural environments.
Finally, though, Departures is too tasteful for its own good. Occasionally Takita (a reformed soft-porn director) and screenwriter Kundo Koyama delve into farce (as when a diaper-clad Daigo ends up playing the corpse in an encoffinment training video, or when a "she" body turns out to be a "he" body), whimsy (it seems there's nothing like a good encoffinment to work up a mortician's appetite) and viscera (when Yamazaki says the word "anus," it's like a little slap to the ear). But the plot here has no snap, crackle or pop. Forty-five minutes in, you've prepared a mental checklist of every turn that Daigo Kobayashi will face, then negotiate - and be danged if Takita doesn't deliver on every one.
Adding the insult of irritation to this injury of predictability is Joe Hisaishi's soundtrack. As one might expect in a film with a cellist protagonist, Hisaishi's music inclines to the pseudo-classical and the cloyingly sentimental - conceits that could have been tolerated had Takita deployed them much less intrusively than he does here.
Departures is, well … a nice film. It breaks no new ground, offers no audacious insights or rude revelations; toe follows tac as surely as tac follows tic. As a result, soon after you depart the theatre, you'll find Departures very likely has departed your memory.