Friday, May 29, 2009

Foreign Language Oscar Winner: Departures

Given the sheer volume of true masterpieces created by legendary filmmakers like Akira Kurosawa and Kon Ichikawa, it is hard to believe Japanese cinema had only won the best foreign language Academy Award three times prior to this year’s ceremony. However, in perhaps the biggest upset of the 2009 Oscars, Yojiro Takita’s Departures became the fourth Japanese winner. Despite ever-present controversies surrounding the nominating process, the Academy’s foreign language division got it right this time. Easily the best nominated foreign film of the year as well as one of the highlights of the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival, Taika’s Departures (trailer here), begins it regular theatrical run today in select cities.

Life has been a mixed bag for Daigo Kobayashi. As soon as he fulfills his lifelong ambition of joining a symphony, the orchestra disbands. Realizing he is a mediocre talent unlikely to secure another such position, Kobayashi gives up music, convincing his attractive wife Mika to move back to his provincial family home. In truth, besides their house, there is little there for Kobayashi to move back to. His mother died while he was on tour and his father deserted the family when Kobayashi was a young boy.

Looking for work, Kobayashi answers an ad deceptively using the word “departures.” He assumes it is a travel agency, but it is actually an “encoffination” agency that performs the ceremonial preparations before laying the recently deceased in their caskets. Naturally, he is put off by this, but Mr. Sasaki, his prospective employer, plies him with cash until he reluctantly agrees to try it. Of course, it is a difficult line of work to adjust to, but Kobayashi finds he has a talent for it. His wife though, is less than understanding when she discovers the truth about his new job.

Once again, the shunned encoffineer must deal with the abandonment of a loved one, as well as the rejection of former friends. Yet in Sasaki and his assistant, he finds a surrogate family. He also starts playing his childhood cello again. Music had been Kobayashi’s ambition, and then the symbol of his failure. By returning to his home, he starts reconnecting with what music originally meant to him. Logically, the soundtrack plays a crucial role in the film and probably the film’s biggest gamble was the use of primarily original compositions. Fortunately, Jo Hisaishi’s haunting light-classical themes are absolutely pitch-perfect for the story.

In the hands of a lesser director, Departures could have been painfully schmaltzy. However, Takita has crafted an elegant, deeply felt film. The key to his approach are the encoffining ceremonies he patiently and reverently films, movingly capturing the multiplicity of emotions experienced by the bereaved and the humanity of the encoffineers. Once you understand the importance of the ceremony, you understand Kobayashi.

A film dominated by funereal rituals might sound depressing, but in fact, it is quite the opposite. It does pack a heavy emotional punch, but it is ultimately life-affirming and hopeful. Departures is definitely about loss and regret, but also redemption and how one lost man finds his place in the world. Takita’s sensitive direction always finds the right note and the cast is uniformly excellent. Masahiro Motoki covers a wide emotional range as Kobayashi, expressing the musician’s great empathy as well as the insecurities and resentments deeply rooted in his childhood. Likewise, Tsutomu Yamazaki plays Sasaki with understated wit and grace, without coming across as the stereotypical wise old mentor.

Every element of Departures works together beautifully. It is a richly crafted, highly satisfying film. It is also genuinely moving, with no cheap tears, but a real emotional pay-off earned through its superior performances and character development. It opens today in New York at the Lincoln Plaza and Landmark Sunshine Theaters.