Departures (Okuribito) Directed by: Yojiro Takita Cast: Masahiro Motoki, Tsutomu Yamazaki, Ryoko Hirosue Running Time: 2 hrs 10 mins Rating: PG-13 Release Date: July 3, 2009
Plot: Daigo Kobayashi (Motoki) loses his job as a professional cellist. In debt and disappointed, he moves with his wife, Mika (Hirosue), to the home that his deceased mother left him. There he takes a job as an "encoffineer," ritually preparing bodies for burial. But his work is looked down upon by his family and friends.
Who’s It For? Fans of well-crafted films. Especially if they don't mind subtitles.
Expectations: Departures won the Best Foreign Film Oscar back in February, so I was hoping for a really great film.
Masahiro Motoki as Daigo Kobayashi: Daigo's in the middle of a crisis. The orchestra he worked so hard to join is being disbanded due to lack of funds and he is in debt after purchasing a professional cello. So he decides to sell the cello and move back to his mother's old home in the small town where he grew up. He goes to a job interview and gets the position, only to learn that what he's become in an encoffineer (a sort of Buddhist undertaker who prepares a body for burial in a ritualized ceremony). Though he's slightly ashamed of working with the dead, he finds that he has a gift for the job and takes pleasure from it. Motoki gives a subtle performance. Most of what I've inferred about his characters feelings come from his expressions and actions rather than dialogue. Daigo undergoes a complete arc and carries his loved ones with him. I don't think the part could have been better cast. Score: 8
Tsutomu Yamazaki as Ikuei Sasaki: Mr. Sasaki owns the encoffineer business where Daigo is hired and teaches him the trade. He gives a delicately humorous performance as a man who's seen it all and can chow down on a snack, even after seeing a decaying body. But he's also an incredibly compassionate person who knows the comfort he can offer to the families of the bereaved. Yamazaki gives the character dignity and grace. Score: 7
Ryoko Hirosue as Mika Kobayashi: Hirosue's adorable as Mika, Daigo's wife. She's also the most agreeable spouse ever, incredibly mild mannered when Daigo admits first that he lost his job and then that he bought a hugely expensive cello without telling her. She's so OK with everything that it comes as a big shock when she discovers Daigo's an encoffineer and freaks out. Her reaction, more than anything else showed me the position his job holds in Japanese society. Though I was a little confused at one point by her behavior, I pretty much chalked it up to a cultural difference rather than bad acting. Hirosue's so likable that you want her and Daigo to stay together. No matter what, you want him to find a way to keep his wife and this job that means so much to him. Score: 6
Talking: There's a sense that less is more with the dialogue. Well written, I wasn't left wondering anything. Score: 7
Sights: When they get to the country side, the scenery is just beautiful. The filmmakers do a excellent job of exploiting this natural beauty, especially in one scene where Mika leaves the house and cherry blossoms are falling all over. It's gorgeous. Score: 7
Sounds: Much of the soundtrack involves the cello, some of it played by Daigo himself. There's even a montage which works, for once, because he is shown playing the cello interspersed with other clips. Score: 6
Best Scene: Mr. Sasaki and Daigo show up to one appointment and are yelled at for being 5 minutes late by an irate man. Over the course of their visit, the man's feeling change until he rushes after them at the end with a gift. It may not sound like much, but this scene shows the viewer and Daigo the importance of the job of the encoffineer and how he can offer compassion to a family in suffering.
Ending: Departures flounders a bit with it's ending. A friend of Daigo's dies and his wife sees how important his job is and everything seems wrapped up. Then it effectively ends again when his estranged father passes away and Daigo goes to attend to him. The father subplot's there the whole time, it's just not strong enough to deserve it's placement as the finale of the film. Especially because Mr. Sasaki effectively fills the role as a surrogate parent.
Questions: What is the status of the encoffineer in Japanese society?
Rewatchability: Yes, I could easily watch this film again, though not too soon. It's not too heavy but certainly more so than a comedy.
Departures is a subtle film about a serious subject but manages to be neither weepy nor dull. It features good performances and excellent filmmaking. There were a few quibbles I had, the problems with the ending and the music occasionally got perilously close to cloying, but they were minor in contrast to the many things the film did right. Still, this movie won the Oscar last year and I can't say it was the best foreign film from 2008. I greatly enjoyed both Revanche and Waltz with Bashir, and that's just among it's Oscar competition. So I can't go so far as to say it's the best foreign film, but I will say it is something that I would recommend.
Final Score: 7/10