Departures (2008)

Departures collected the Academy Award for best foreign picture in 2009. Opponents included the excellent The Class and the provocative Waltz with Bashir. Voters may have been swayed by the very Hollywood feel that Departures conjurs. There is an almost Cameron Crowe like nature to it (Almost Famous and Say Anything Crowe, not Jerry Maguire Crowe), it comes as something of a surprise that a Lasse Hallstrom directed, Robert Pattinson starring, Type 2 diabetes nightmare remake hasn’t already hit the multiplexes. It’s certainly warm and charming enough for an unscrupulous executive (throw a brick) to plunder.

The story concerns Daigo, a cellist in an orchestra. When the orchestra is disbanded Daigo and his wife move back to the town he grew up in. He almost accidentally takes a job “preparing” the deceased. Hiding his new profession from his wife Daigo begins to develop a sense of fufillment and professional pride. When his wife finds out the nature of his work however, she leaves him, leaving Daigo with a difficult choice. So far so Elizabethtown, although we are at least spared Orlando Bloom’s American accent.

The man who hires Daigo (one question; “will you work hard?”) is Ikuei, an old hand in the “encoffinment” business. He’s dry and thoroughly black humoured (practically the law when it comes to on screen pathologists and morticians), a cigarette always hanging from his lips. He speaks rarely, imparting his skills to Daigo through doing rather than telling. Ikuei is the classic character, the mentor, the unconventional role model for Daigo. Tsutomo Yamazaki laps him up, playing him with an easy confidence and a smile well concealed from both Daigo and us. He’s responsible for most of the films comic moments and some of it’s more poignant ones too.

The taboo about working with the dead in Japan is a key part of the film. Daigo is fearful of his wife’s reaction to his work, an old friend tells him to “get a proper job” and a client scalds him for “making money off the dead”. This is in stark contrast to the reactions of the families who watch him prepare their deceased relatives. They respond well to the care and attention Daigo takes, particularly as he learns to judge each situation differently, making his ministrations feel more personal. Therefore, it follows that when his friend, and wife see him in action so to speak, they are won over to the role Daigo has chosen.

The score that drifts through the film (composed by Joe Hisaishi) is complementary to both Daigo’s previous calling as a cellist and mournful enough to fit his new encoffiner job. It lilts and swells in all the right places, adding an emotional charge only when needed and fading into the background when the emotion is wrote plain enough on the faces of the characters.

So unlike the Japanese films that we regularly receive over here (horror, torture, torture-horror, sadistic-sex-tortur e-horror), made with a carefree attitude and seemingly without fear of invoking Kurosawa or Ozu. Departures is crucially only Japanese because it is set in Japan. The story is universal and could be played out anywhere making that feared remake ever so more unnescessary than the last fifty or so.

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