Departures (Okuribito)..Not A review -
Having watched Waltz with Bashir and Revanche and read about the The Class and The Baader Meinhof Complex I was struck by the reviewers who thought that Departures (Okuribito) was not the right choice to win the best foreign film Oscar for 2008. The class I cannot talk about, as I haven't had a chance to watch it yet but Waltz with Bashir was clearly an innovative movie with the way it used animation to tell the story of a dark chapter in Israel's history. So a part of me did wonder why some critics thought that Departures was not deserving, questioning the idea of what the academy considers to be prize worthy.
I am still conflicted, having watched 3 of these 5 nominated films. Also I feel that there are always worthy films and stay out of the whole "best movie" categorization. A movie speaks to me in different ways, at different levels based on how I feel at that moment too. I just love movies..lets just leave it at that.
On to "Departures"...
Daigo Kobayashi (Masahiro Motoki), is a professional cellist who loses his job when his orchestra is dissolved due to lack of patrons. So he and his wife, Mika (Ryoko Hirosue), return to his hometown and move into the house that used to double as a bar Daigo’s mother used to run. Dead for a couple of years, and the whereabouts of Daigo’s father, who walked out on the family when Daigo was a young boy, are unknown. Eager to find work , Daigo answers an ad offering a career "working with departures". Sounds promising enough?
So he goes for an interview and, is hired almost before he sits down, at a high salary, too. There is a catch though, the "working with departures" is a misprint, the job involves working with the departed. Daigo will be preparing bodies for cremation something referred to as "encoffinment". His job is to assist Sasaki (Tsutomu Yamazaki), a dour, gruff man who owns the business who dealing with his own grief, while helping others thru their losses.
But Sasaki knows his work, it is almost akin to an art form ( the Japanese term for this is “Nokanshi"), where with the grieving family watching, the corpse is prepared for cremation..the body bathed with a cloth, dressed up and made up, all done with delicate flourishes, a spiritual concentration and a respectful grace. All of this done without the deceased body being exposed except for their extremities.
Daigo is wary of his wife finding out about his new profession, for just as those in the Indian caste system that take care of the dead were discriminated against so are these in Japan, although with time that has gone but not vanished. This we find out when Daigo encounters one of his old friends who knows what he does, and is shunned. But Mika does find out and refuses to let him touch her, leaves him for a while, to return with news that she is soon to be the mother of his child, but still wanting him to change his profession.
Daigo does ponder his own fate as well, wondering about his own calling in life, the shadow of his absent father always around him. I don't want to give too much of this plot away. But this movie is not morbid despite the premise, the Nokanashi rituals are beautiful to watch as are some of the revelations during these ceremonies, where despite the Japanese habit of restraint, things are revealed during these moments, whether they are family fissures, or the heartbreaking loss of a child or a mother, or the quite peace of sending one along with love and kisses.
Daigo and Sasaki are the gentle gatekeepers of sorts of this journey to an afterlife. Daigo's entrance to this new profession does bring out it's share of laughs, which are best experienced watching the movie. The humor translates well too, I could tell from the audiences reaction as well as from the tears.
This is a moving, sentimental film, some of the visuals from Nothern Japan are stunning and the music subdued but just right. One might say you know what might happen next, but let that not stop you from enjoying this film. The main actors are able and well cast, and the secondary characters contribute to the of this wonderful film.
I loved how the movie began with the headlights of a car signifying an arrival, and ending with a departure, one that brings catharsis for the protagonist and as a viewer, I experienced the characters joys and sorrows as well. This movie might not find a broad audience here, it was a huge hit in Japan, but I could tell from the arthouse theater audience, that is was well appreciated. The movie was shown twice this month, I missed it last time, and am glad to have been able to see it.