Yojiro Takita’s drama begins with cellist Daigo Kobayashi (Masahiro Motoki) left devastated by the breakup of the orchestra he is a part of. With money tight, Daigo and his wife, Mika (Ryoko Hirosue), return to Daigo’s childhood home where his late mother has left him a former coffee shop in her will. Daigo endeavours to find a new job to support him and his wife and when he sees an advertisement for “Departures” he quickly applies. Daigo assumes the advert is for a travel agency but instead discovers his role is to prepare the dead. Although the prospect of such work is uncomfortable, Daigo reluctantly accepts the job.
Departures depicts the beautiful traditional Japanese ceremony of encoffining where the dead are ritually dressed and prepared before being placed in coffins. Family and friends look on as Daigo and his boss, Sasaki (Tsutomu Yamazaki), perform their work and though reverence is usually observed, the two men sometimes have to witness emotions overflowing amongst the mourners. As well as Daigo’s work we are given other narrative threads in the form of his relationship with the locals who remember him from his childhood as well as the mystery of Daigo’s father who abandoned him and his mother many years before. Daigo also has the problem of concealing the work he does from Mika, with those in the village that know all frowning on him. The question is does Daigo stick with his new job or does he find a way to return to his passion for the cello?
Departures takes us on a wonderful journey from the intricate streets of Tokyo to a more rural village surrounded by lush scenery and even having a traditional bathhouse for men and women to go and relax. The ceremonies for the dead are beautiful to watch, unsurprisingly moving, yet sometimes humorous; a celebration of those that have passed. The cast are all very good here, with some truly memorable performances, especially from Motoki as Daigo and Yamazaki as Sasaki, whose partnership is almost akin to father and son.
Departures was the recipient of an Oscar for Best Foreign Film at the 2009 Academy Awards and it isn’t difficult to see why. Not only is this exquisitely filmed but we are showered with sumptuous music, moving ceremonies and fascinating Japanese tradition. Although the ending may lean towards over-sentimentality it isn’t enough to tarnish this Japanese gem which is simply a delight from start to finish.
(Film source: reviewer’s own copy)
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