Tuesday, August 16, 2016

2008 Winner, Departures



Director:  Yōjirō Takita 

Distributed by:  Shochiku 

Released:  September 2008 

Country:  Japan

My guess is that of all the foreign films I have watched in my lifetime (subtracting the Best Foreign Films), 80% have been Japanese.  That’s because a few years ago I discovered Akira Kurosawa and began obsessively watching all of his movies I could find.  So I was looking forward to this film to see if it would measure up to any of the great films made by him or by the other two famous Japanese directors of his era, Yasujirō Ozu, Kenji Mizoguchi.  What I found was that this was no Seven Samurai or The Tokyo Story in terms of tone or scope, but was quite different, and in a good way.

An encoffinment ceremony
The story focuses on Daigo Kobayashi, a cellist with a two-bit orchestra in Tokyo.  When the group goes out of business, it’s “Cello, Goodbye” for the young Daigo, and he and his and his fiancé move back to the town he grew up into in the little house he inherited from his mom.  Daigo’s dad ditched him and his mom way back when, which is a detail that will become a major focus of the story later.  Daigo scans the want ads for a job, and sees a cryptic one that asks for someone for “assisting departures.”  Daigo assumes he will work for a travel agency, but after getting hired, he learns his new employer has bamboozled him with an epic bait and switch.  Turns out the word “departures” wasn’t what he thought—it actually referred to departing from this world into the next.  Daigo was unknowingly hired to assist in ceremonies of Buddhist encoffinment, preparing the body in a ritualistic way for cremation.  In Japan, the vast majority of the dead are cremated, and the preparation of the body—the cleaning, the clothing, etc., was once normally done in front of the departed's loved ones.  Nowadays, this is a rarity—hence, the difficulty in finding an assistant to hire.

Excuse me?  You got a job doing what?
This film doesn’t neatly fit into the category of drama or comedy—the subject of death is ever present, but one can imagine the fish-out-of-water merriment that might ensue when a guy is picked off the street to clean dead bodies.  And there are some genuinely funny moments, like when Daigo helps out in making a training video for future encoffinment hirees.  Understandably, Daigo doesn’t want to give his pretty fiancé the heebie-jeebies, so he keeps the details of his new gig from her for a while.  Oh boy, when she finds out!

Daigo soon learns that he is more talented at fiddling with dead carcasses than with the cello, and . . . . kinda likes it (weird!).  But just as he gets used to his new job, he is thrown for a loop—the next dead guy on the slab is none other than his old man!  Daddy issues rise to the top here, so basically this movie is a carbon copy of Field of Dreams, except we are in Japan and not Iowa, and the subject matter is encoffinment and not baseball, and just about every other detail is different.
Departures is a simple film, really.  No fancy camera work but well shot, and I found the ritual scenes to be quite captivating.  Again, this movie is so very different from the ones of the great earlier Japanese masters, yet it shares a theme common with them—that of a passing Japanese culture, one moving from the religious to the secular, from the traditional to the modern.  It is a bittersweet theme—sad, of course, to see our traditions pass as our loved ones do.  But at the same time, if we embrace the today, we can see the beauty of the new.  Departures doesn’t look like the wonderful Japanese cinema of Kurosawa's day, yet it’s okay to let go and look at the modern and enjoy it for its beauty in its own right, all with respect and appreciation for the past.
Yo, Jimbo, there's more to Japanese cinema than just samurai films.

The Title:  おくりびと, literally, “one who sends off.” The title is the joke, in part—the ad wasn’t for departures to another country but into the next life.  But it is also about departures from what one expects of life, or from what one has held as fundamentally important, onto something different, and possibly greater.

The Culture:  The dying art of encoffinment in the Buddhist tradition is shown with beauty and dignity.  Whenever you learn a little thing about a culture in a movie like this, it’s an unexpected treat.

Agenda Danger:  Nothing slightly political.

Best Picture that year:  Slumdog Millionaire

Rating:  A film with comedy that isn’t over the top and has drama at the right tone.  Believe me, you are dying to see it.

1 comment:

  1. Sorry, this one did nothing for me. All of it was just so uninvolving. Waltz With Bashir was a much better picture and should've won BFF that year, in my opinion.