Last year’s Best Foreign Language Oscar winner, Departures, had a lot to prove. Unfair? Absolutely. Was it the best foreign film from 2008? No. Is it a good movie? Yes—not a great one, but definitely a very entertaining, well-made, and touching Japanese film.
The film, opening today at the Edina Cinema, also won 10 awards from the Japanese Academy (Japan’s equivalent of the Oscars). But among the other four Oscar nominees for Best Foreign Film—Revanche, Waltz With Bashir, The Class, and The Baader Meinhof Complex—I’d rank Departures at number three. (I have yet to see BMC, as it has not been released here yet in any capacity.)
I feel strongly that the Austrian film Revanche should have taken the Oscar. (Incidentally, it is currently playing at the Lagoon. Check it out. Fantastic film.) Waltz With Bashir was a great film too, and innovative as hell in its unique approach of presenting a documentary as a moving graphic novel. Director Ari Folman pushed the genre to a new level with this bold approach, and the story itself, concerning lost memories of the director’s time in the Lebanon War, was strong and justified the stylish approach. There’s no doubt in my mind that Departures is a better film than The Class, which many found innovative as well but I saw as a straightforward, honest, and interestingly-told story about the French school system—nothing amazing by any means. Its style didn’t feel new at all. It was yet another documentary approach to a fictional story.
But back to the film at hand: When a symphony orchestra in Tokyo disbands, Daigo Kobayashi (Masahiro Motoki) suddenly becomes unemployed. Suffering from low self-esteem, he realizes not everyone who devotes their life to music becomes a top artist. With wife Mika (Ryoko Hirosue) in tow, he moves back to his hometown in the northeastern prefecture of Yamagata to live in his late mother’s house, which doubles as the local pub.
Spotting a help wanted ad featuring the word “departures” (a clever use of the word that shows some of the film’s much-needed humor), he is excited about the prospect of trying a new career in the travel industry. The company owner, Sasaki (Tsutomu Yamazaki), hires him on the spot, with only a cursory glance at his resume. Daigo finally asks what is involved, exactly, and is stunned to learn what he has gotten himself into: the ceremonial “encoffination” of corpses prior to cremation.
Sasaki urges him to take the job, proffering large amounts of cash; he’s getting older and needs someone to carry on the tradition. Daigo overcomes his initial trepidation and agrees to try the job, but the film has more on its mind than a simple returning-to-your-roots storyline. It would be unfair of me to even hint at where the plot goes, but I will say that family and memories play a huge part in Daigo’s arc in the movie. I found these themes to be the most satisfyingly realized in the film.
Director Yôjirô Takita, unbeknownst to me until this film, strikes a perfect balance between (often) dark, matter-of-fact humor and tear-inducing emotion. His use of montage and music is very effective here; and the small town is captured skillfully, with shots that show off the mountainous backdrops.
This is not to say that Departures doesn’t have problems. It does. The running time is a bit long at 130 minutes (though it is well-paced, it could’ve been shortened), and several characters are no more than two-dimensional cardboard cutouts, not flesh-and-blood people. (Daigo’s wife and an old friend he meets upon returning, for example, are unfortunately nothing more than clichéd caricatures.) None of these issues, though, made me question that this is the work of a filmmaker who knows how to use all the available cinematic tools to tell a good story. Takita’s film feels like it could have been made in the golden era of Hollywood, when directors did what the picture asked of them. Takita may not have a flashy, distinct style that makes him stand out, but he gets the job done.
Although it wasn’t the strongest among the nominees, there is a reason Departures won the Oscar this year. Not a good one, but a reason nonetheless, and it happens often with the Academy Awards. Departures was the most accessible of the bunch. Truth be told, it’s the most Hollywood-ized of all the nominees, and it’s a much easier pill to swallow for the Academy, which is filled with old voters who don’t typically reward innovation.
Every film deserves to be viewed on its own merits, not put on some imaginary pedestal we create based on what is essentially the faux-classiest, most expensive, and glossiest popularity contest in the world. As simple and sometimes vanilla-plain as Departures can be, it has stayed with me, and chances are that audiences venturing to the Edina Theater to see it themselves will have a similar reaction. (Don’t wait, it won’t be there long.) When saw it, I was moved. In the end, that’s all that matters.
Erik McClanahan is a freelance film journalist and critic in Minneapolis. He is also co-host of KFAI’s Movie Talk.
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