It’s usually a wise precaution to be a little skeptical of Best Foreign Language Film Oscar winners. The choices often seem to fall into one of two categories: movies that play on the voters’ sense of cultural inferiority, or sentimental crowd-pleasers that have been legitimized by simply not being in English. Yôjirô Takita’s Departures, which captured last year’s Foreign Language Oscar, is perhaps a little bit of both, but that doesn’t keep it from being a worthy movie. Oscar-worthy? Perhaps not. Regardless, it is an engaging little drama of some depth.
Departures tells the story of Daigo Kobayashi (Masahiro Motoki), a cellist of no great renown, who finds himself without a job when the small orchestra that employs him is suddenly dissolved by the owner after an apparently typical concert where the musicians outnumber the audience. Unsure of his future—and not that certain of his actual talent—Daigo opts to sell his cello and return with his wife, Mika (Ryoko Hirosue), to his hometown in northern Japan where his late mother left him a house.
In need of a job after arriving there, he sees an ad in the paper for a business specializing in “departures,” which he imagines has something to do with a travel agency. Actually, “departures” is a misprint that should have read “departed”—it turns out, the job involves preparing the dead for cremation. It’s neither a desirable job, nor is it generally considered respectable, but it pays well, and in any case, the boss (Tsutomu Yamazaki) won’t take no for an answer, foisting an advance on Daigo to ensure his return the next day. Daigo keeps the nature of his work from Mika, but of course this can’t last, and her reaction to learning that her husband works as an “encoffining master” forms a good bit of the story’s drama. However, that’s not really the crux of Departures.
Departures is a good deal more complex than it might at first seem. There’s much going on beneath the surface here—from the way we approach death to the way we approach what life throws at us. It could be said to be a film in which death is used to teach the characters about life, and that would be a fair assessment, but it’s one that would give a false impression of the film. This is essentially a character piece with a clever blend of comedy and drama (with the line between the two often indistinct). The performances have much to do with why the film works. It’s as much a movie as it is a film—if you understand the distinction. The characters tend to more or less do what we expect, and the story follows a far-from-unpredictable arc. The last scenes could be described as manipulative and soapy. Maybe they are, but it’s because Departures remembers to be an effective entertainment at all times that you really ought to give this Japanese import a chance. Rated PG-13 for thematic material.