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Departures (Yojiro Takita, 2008)


     Yojiro Takita’s Departures, an eminently resistible character study, shocked many with its unexpected claim to this year’s Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. After viewing the winner, its selection for this honor remains puzzling. A classy but undistinguished entry in a particularly Japanese style of drama, it centers on a ho-hum rustic revelation, in which Daigo, its protagonist, leaves the city to find a spiritual re-awakening in the small town where he grew up. A blatant motif of saying goodbye to emotional baggage, whether it is an unrealistic dream, a beloved relative, or a father barely known, dominates the proceedings. This unsubtle theme is treated with moderate restraint, but maximum repetition, for the entire run time, as the unlikely hero matures and learns the trade of encoffining, the Japanese ritual of preparing the dead for their journey into the afterlife. Director Takita firmly defines his film’s emotional trajectory with the opening narration, in which Daigo speaks sensitively of starting anew despite “cold winters”.


     Departures’ attempt at such sensitivity, however, is seriously undercut by its structural crassness. Each scene leads to a single, predictable revelation. The characters’ stuffy exteriors inevitably give way to hidden warmth. Such an approach isn’t exactly false, so much as it feels predigested. One wonders what the point of such an extended exercise in triteness is. The protagonist’s canned epiphanies don’t shed particular light onto the ceremonial rite of encoffining (the film obviously explains that the ceremony helps mourners heal, yet taxes its performers), nor do they build to an especially satisfactory personal catharsis. As Daigo’s relationship to his wife improves, and his place in life becomes more firmly defined (and more firmly conventional), the movie takes on an oddly prescriptive quality.


     Such modestly crafted moral tales sometimes manage win the audience over, but here the tone wavers too much for sincerity to be felt. Early scenes awkwardly aim for whimsy. The first two funeral rites shown are played for laughs, involving a transvestite corpse and the filming of an infomercial. Daigo’s initial reaction to his job, as conveyed by the rubber-faced Masahiro Motoki, is preposterous. Initially unaware of the position he’s applying for, he nonetheless accepts, and then proceeds to conceal the nature of his work from everyone. He’s meant to be a surrogate for the audience, drawing us into the taboo world of encoffining, but his ludicrous behavior insults the audience’s intelligence. Watching Daigo’s eyes bug out as he first sees his business cards, for example, is a moment less comic than pathetic. Perhaps the level of discomfort that Japanese people have with death is inadequately conveyed by the movie, but credulity is strained in these early scenes, undermining the supposed catharses to follow.


     Throughout Departures, Takita’s intent is clear, but his effect is not achieved. Joe Hisaishi’s score and Daigo’s frequent cello solos strain to stir emotion, but simultaneously underline every contrivance. The frequent deployment of heavy symbolism (salmon struggling upstream, childhood mementos, etc…) makes every point clear, but steamrolls subtlety. Most interesting, at least to this viewer, is the way that Departures provides a Japanese counterpart to Christine Jeff’s recent Sunshine Cleaning. Where Departures generates bathos from the pressures and embarrassments caused by Japanese mores, Jeff’s movie teases the American spirit of entrepreneurship. Each uses the backdrop of death as a vehicle to reaffirm the need to live a full life. Both stumble most helplessly, though, in their attempts to provide their characters with emotionally moving backstories. In each, a series of melodramatic confessions and flashback montages strain to create the sound and fury of personal psychological trauma, yet seem more likely to leave the average viewer as unresponsive as one of the protagonists’ clients.



Jeremy Heilman