Departures (Okuribito) is a simple, Japanese film about some big subjects: love, life and death. This existential family drama was the winner of the Best Foreign Film Oscar in 2009. It is also a subtle and nuanced story where a Zen-like air means that even though the final message is poignant and meaningful, it is clouded by the slow and repetitive rituals that precede it.
The film is directed by Yôjirô Takita and shows a talented but newly-unemployed cellist, Daigo Kobayashi (Masahiro Motoki) returning to his hometown. This will allow Kobayashi to live in the house he inherited from his mother with his wife, Mika (Ryôko Hirosue). Daigo soon discovers an advertisement in the local newspaper. The job is described as “Departures” and he assumes he will be working for a travel agent. Instead, Daigo is shocked to discover the job is for a nokanshi or coffiner- a person who washes, dresses and makes up a deceased person before they are cremated in a gentle ritual that is performed before the grieving parties.
Daigo initially dislikes the job but eventually he comes to be a master at his profession and appreciate the closure he helps to give to families. This is largely thanks to his deadpan boss (Tsutomu Yamazaki who puts in an excellent performance). In time we learn that Daigo is dealing with his own loss, as his father (Tôru Minegishi) walked out the family when the former was a boy. Daigo grapples with this as well as the growing disapproval regarding his occupation from the people he knows (especially his wife).
Departures is a beautiful, understated and heartfelt film that gradually reveals some rich characters as they deal deftly with a taboo subject, death. The film is subtle, gentle and emotional, but there was also room for it to be tightened in order to create a bigger impact. Because despite having a reverential affair and dealing with a sensitive topic with grace and elegance, this film is ultimately too low-key and soft-paced in its quiet observations to have the profound affect it should have.
Originally published on 13 July 2014 at the following website: http://iris.theaureview.com/2014/07/13/japanese-film-festival-encore-review-departures-okuribito-japan-2008/
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