Departures took most prognosticators by surprise when it beat out the already released, much hyped competition of Waltz with Bashir and The Class to win the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Oscars. After seeing the movie, however, it’s not hard to fathom how the upset happened.
As directed by Yôjirô Takita, this is a sumptuous, richly composed drama that considers big, broad emotional issues with a sweeping cinematic canvas. It is, in other words, exactly the sort of movie Academy voters tend to love. The same cannot be said for an abstractly animated, psychological depiction of the burdens of war or a verité rendering of life in a French classroom over the course of a school year.
That’s not to take anything away from the high levels of craft Takita pours into every frame of his film. Had the movie been more widely seen prior to the awards it could conceivably have received attention in the cinematography category as well. From sweeping pans around the main character playing his cello atop a hill to a long shot taken from a high angle of characters leaving a public bath as blankets of snow gingerly cover the ground, the movie evokes the fluid, cyclical rhythms of life and death.
The film stars Masahiro Motoki as Daigo Kobayashi, a professional cellist living in Tokyo. As the story begins he finds himself at a personal crossroads. His cash strapped orchestra is shuttered, and he’s left without a job or a clear direction. He and his wife Mika (Ryoko Hiruse) decide to take the opportunity to return to his seaside village hometown. There Daigo finds work with Ikue Sasaki (Tsutomo Yamazaki), an undertaker of sorts, hired to perform traditional funeral rites on the recently deceased and prepare them for a dignified burial. As the narrative progresses, Daigo’s initial skepticism gives way to a deep appreciation of the sacredness of Ikue’s work.
Takita has made a clearheaded evocation of the various transmutations of death that permeate everyday existence. Daigo, Ikue and the other characters struggle to cope with the profound specter of sudden, profound emotional loss, which powerfully shapes their daily lives. Daigo returns to his hometown in no small part to confront the painful memories of the childhood abandonment of his father, while Ikue runs his company in tribute to his beloved late wife. They differ, however, in a fundamental way: Ikue has found inner peace by helping families make the profound emotional transition to the stark, sudden jolt of life without a loved one. Daigo still must find his.
The movie is so tastefully rendered that it almost comes across as too safe, confronting challenging material in such a straightforward manner that one longs for some element to go against type, through the addition of humor or other subtle, unsuspected stylistic touches. The full orchestral performance of the “Ode to Joy” chorus from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony that serves as the picture’s second scene sets the tone for what is a stately, high art endeavor that is occasionally a bit too earnestly heartfelt. The filmmaker does, however, get from his actors the quiet human touch the film needs to best complement the symphonic style.
Motoki takes the picture in a surprising direction with his performance as Daigo, in which a kindly subservient exterior masks the character’s strongly constituted sense of self. He’s mastered the art of saying something, or nothing, while using his sincere eyes and tenuous physical demeanor to communicate everything. Similarly, Hiruse and Yamazaki create fully-rounded characters while making the most of their own deeply felt emotional moments. Kundo Koyama’s screenplay gives them both a tangible arc and convincing motivations, treating them with the same degree of care bestowed on the lead.
Yet Departures is, ultimately, a film of beautiful landscapes, exquisite metaphoric visual compositions and luxurious montages. It’s moviemaking on an operatic scale that, through big, broad strokes, evokes the fundamental facets of human existence. It’s a grand piece of work and a pleasure to observe, but it stimulates the heart and never the brain.