Monday, June 15, 2009

Movie Review: Departures

Departures ** ½
Directed by:
Yôjirô Takita
Written By: Kundo Koyama.
Starring: Masahiro Motoki (Daigo Kobayashi), Tsutomu Yamazaki (Ikuei Sasaki), Ryoko Hirosue (Mika Kobayashi), Kazuko Yoshiyuki (Tsuyako Yamashita), Kimiko Yo (Yuriko Kamimura), Takashi Sasano (Shokichi Hirata).

Every year, the Academy usually nominates some great films for the foreign language film Oscar, and yet every year, they give the actual award to a film that plays it completely safe. At this year’s Oscars, they nominated the great Waltz with Bashir, and the even greater The Class, two masterpieces, but gave the awards to the Japanese film Departures. Unlike other “safe” Academy choices like The Counterfeiters or Nowhere in Africa (to name just two), Departures isn’t even a good film. It’s merely average. It’s a film that tries way too hard to pull on your heartstrings, and the result for me anyway, was that I resisted the whole enterprise.

Daigo Kobayashi (Masahiro Motoki) is a cellist with a second tier orchestra in Tokyo, until lack of funds forces them to close. Out of a job, and trained for nothing else, Daigo and his wife Mika (Ryoko Hirosue) move back to Daigo’s small hometown and into the house left to him by his mother. Daigo never really knew his father, who abandoned the family when he was six, and is still bitter about it. Looking in the paper for a job, he finds one that says it deals in “departures”. Thinking it’s a travel agent, he applies for the job, and is stunned when the boss Ikuei Sasaski (Tsutomu Yamazaki) hires him on the spot. This is not a travel agent after all, but a business which deals in the preparing of dead bodies to be cremated. Apparently in Japan, there is a shame in working at jobs like this, even though everyone needs this done, and the money is good. Daigo hides what he does from his wife, although he finds some sort of inner peace while doing his new job.

Departures starts out as a comedy, and slowly turns into a melodrama at about the half way point. The two halves of the movie do not really fit together. I enjoyed the first half a lot more, when Daigo is trying to get used his job, including a sequence when he discovers while washing a body that while he thought the deceased was a woman, that they are actually a man. There is also an hilarious sequence where Daigo has to star as a corpse in an instructional video. Even in this half of the movie though, we see the darkness of the second half coming. You do not introduce the idea of a father who ran away from the family, unless you’re going to do something with it. Neither do you have an older character say that they’ll do their job until they die, unless at some point they are going to die.

The screenplay by Kundo Koyama never really finds its footing. It’s so busy trying to cram so much into the movie, that a consistent tone is never really found. Director Yojiro Takita doesn’t find it either. And while I appreciate the loving care in which the film shows the preparation of the bodies, did we really need to see the ritual as many times as we did? Especially in the last act of the movie, it appears like every other scene in the preparation of one body or another, although admittedly, each one fulfills another element of the plot, or fills in a gap in a character. Still though, at well over two hours, this is a film that drags on endlessly at times.

The cast certainly does help though. For anyone familiar with Japanese films, the two lead actors will be recognizable, and they have played roles like this in the past. But that does not stop either Motoki or Sasaski from being quite effective here, pulling on our heartstrings just enough to keep it bearable. Hirosue is a gorgeous woman, and she is also quite good. The performances keep the movie from tipping over into completely embarrassing territory. In fact, they make the enterprise interesting, and almost make it worthwhile. But at the end of the day, Departures doesn’t really work all that well. It is one of those foreign language films for people who don’t really like foreign films, they just like to pretend they do. Which is probably why the Academy gave it the Oscar in the first place.

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