Departures aka Okuribito (2008)
In "Departures," winner of this year's best foreign film Oscar, an unemployed cello player finds a new purpose and a new life in the business of preparing bodies for cremation. It sounds like disagreeable work, but performed with delicacy and precision, it's a ritual that can help the bereaved find peace.
The film is far from perfect but has enough going on to compensate for its excessive length and some sentimentality. The main roles are well performed, with particularly good work by Masahiro Motoki, a former pop star whose interest in the subject got the film off the ground.
Daigo (Motoki) is a cellist with a Tokyo orchestra that can never seem to attract much of an audience. Newly unemployed, the discouraged young man sells his expensive instrument and, with his wife, Mika (Ryoko Hirosue), moves back to his hometown in northern Japan.
He sees an ad for a job in "departures" and assumes it's for a travel agency. He shows up at the office and is surprised to be hired instantly, and for a substantial salary, by the company's cagey owner, Sasaki (a droll Tsutumo Yamazaki).
He's startled again when he learns that the agency's real business is "encoffinment." The firm is hired by undertakers to ceremonially wash and dress the deceased, in front of the gathered family and other mourners.
"It's a niche market," explains the firm's brisk secretary. Three types of coffins are available, she says, from plywood to fancy cypress, but "they burn the same way, into the same ashes."
At first sickened by his work, Daigo keeps its nature a secret from Miko. We eventually learn that the job of a nokanshi makes one something of an untouchable, and when the normally cheerful Miko discovers the truth, she erupts, calling him "unclean" and demanding that he quit.
But the work has started to strike a chord in Daigo - is there any chance that has something to do with his childhood abandonment by his father?
Daigo watches his boss at work and begins to lose his focus on the procedure's gross physical side. He realizes the deeper meaning of the rituals of wiping down the body and clothing it in silk: "One grown cold, restored to beauty for all eternity. ... Everything done peacefully and beautifully," he says to himself.
The depictions of the work, and how it's carried out with grace and exactitude, are the film's main strength and will resonate with anyone who has had to deal with the death of someone close.
Sasaki sees the transformation in Daigo and tells him, "You were born to do this." In one especially affecting scene, the boss talks about his long-deceased wife, and the importance of eating well - and treats Daigo to a nice piece of freshly grilled puffer.
Perhaps taking a cue from the considered gestures and deliberate pace of the encoffinments, director Yojiro Takita allows the film to find its own pace - too much so. He also permits some jarringly broad humor and isn't above out-and- out yanking at the heartstrings, abetted by a ripe score from Joe Hisaishi.
Link Download departures