Directed by Yojiro Takita. Starring Masahiro Motoki, Ryoko Hirosue, Tsutomu Yamazaki, Kazuko Yoshiyuki, Kimiko Yo, Takashi Sasano. (2009, PG-13, 130 min.)
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Aug. 28, 2009
I was steamed, a tad, when the 2008 Academy Award for Foreign Language Film went to this as-yet-unseen Japanese film instead of to Israeli filmmaker Ari Folman's emotionally devastating, animated dirge Waltz With Bashir. Folman's film is an unlikely candidate for an Oscar, to be sure. It deals with the gravest of human actions – and inactions – in a form that hasn't been done with as much raw, dramatic power at least since Isao Takahata's Grave of the Fireflies in 1988 and, prior to that, Mori Masaki's horrifically moving Barefoot Gen, an animated account of the aftermath of the Allied bombing of Hiroshima adapted from Keiji Nakazawa's long-running manga. I still believe, given the temper of the Middle East and Folman's striking use of powerfully nontraditional dramatic tropes, that Waltz With Bashir should have walked off with the golden icon. But now, having finally watched the somber, death-and-comedy-haunted Departures, I understand why Takita's gentle and comedically nuanced exercise in mourning won out over Folman's chaotically psychotherapeutic war story. Both films exude a funereal grace, and they also share a commonality in the sense that they approach the dead with equal parts grim humor and occasional ghastliness. But Departures is a lyrical ode, with cello accompaniment, to finding one's place in life, even when it turns out to be, unexpectedly, amongst the dead. Waltz With Bashir is more concerned with the psychic fragmentation incurred by those lost in the fog of war. (That said, I still think Folman got the short end of the tombstone.) Motoki (Shall We Dance?) is perfectly cast as Daigo Kobayashi, a thirtysomething cellist who suffers the artistic cataclysm of his orchestra's disbandment due to "sparse" audience attendance. Fortune favors the forlorn in Takita's film, and so Daigo and his loving and lovely wife, Mika (the equally fine Hirosue), head to the Japanese backwater where he grew up and where his deceased mother's house awaits. Once ensconced, Daigo spies a help-wanted advertisement in the local paper. The job is described vaguely as dealing with "departures," a word the frazzled cellist takes to mean he'll be working for a travel agency. This is not, literally, the case, however; the position is actually that of an assistant to the unsurprisingly wise local undertaker, Sasaki (the grizzled Yamazaki, of A Taxing Woman). Daigo's actual responsibilities entail preparing the local decedents for their "casketing," a time-honored series of rituals involving much cleansing, both physical and spiritual. In dire financial straits, Daigo embarks on this new (and ancient) career path, although he's unable to admit the true nature of his new vocation to Mika. A particularly sublime – though, again, unsurprising – form of Japanese comic-drama ensues. Departures isn't the dire redemption dredge you might think. Yamazaki's performance, in particular, feels like some wildly restrained creeky kind of genius, and the whole film is buoyed by a grimly wonderful cello-based score by Joe Hisaishi, of My Neighbor Totoro and Studio Ghibli fame. The film's tone lies, appropriately, somewhere between life, death, and the inadvertent humor that comes from finally accepting the yin/yang perfection of both and getting on with what comes between.