Tuesday, 20 October 2009


Now Showing
Madman Films

Earlier this year I sent an email to friends quoting an A.O. Scott review from the New York Times, facetiously saying how I wished I could be so wittily cutting with my reviews. That review (pub. May 29, 2009) was for the Japanese film Departures, winner of this year’s Oscar for Best Foreign Language film.

The surprise winner it must be said, and perhaps one of the reasons for Scott’s invective which included calling the film, “Overlong, predictable in its plotting and utterly banal in its blending of comic whimsy and melodramatic pathos”. Most pundits and critics had expected the Israeli animated docu-drama Waltz With Bashir to claim the prize or, at second guess, the French film The Class.

That Departures won is not its fault (nor should its makers apologise), but it perhaps places it under greater scrutiny and expectation than had it arrived in our cinemas as a mere nominee. Yojiro Takita’s film is certainly no masterpiece but it’s no dud either; there’s much to be enjoyed if you approach it on its own terms.

Daigo is a cellist with an orchestra but economic pressures (no one is coming to their performances) sees it disbanded by its backers. Daigo decides to uproot he and his surprisingly compliant young wife Mika (Ryoko Hirosue) to his childhood home in a seaside village. In the course of looking for new employment, he mistakenly applies for a job which involves preparing deceased bodies for cremation. That he is immediately employed for the position and paid a day’s wages upfront is amusing; that Daigo goes back on the second day, despite an horrific introduction to the job, even more so.

Surprising, however, is his inability to tell his wife what it is he now does. Handling the deceased is not considered an honourable job in Japan, but one which Daigo slowly begins to admire and excel at. There is the encoffinating ceremony which involves cleaning and dressing the deceased in front of their loved ones and the artist in Daigo treats it with the respect and attention it deserves.

Of course Daigo’s wife will discover his secret and not be so understanding. Daigo will also have to come to terms with the emotional baggage he carries concerning his father, who abandoned him and his now-deceased mother when he was just a boy. Yes there will be tears, and not just on screen (I admit, I did get a little misty eyed), before an inevitably uplifting ending.

At just over two hours, Departures does outstay its welcome and one too many classical music interludes, where Daigo recalls his childhood but not the face of the man who left him, feels as though Takita is pushing for effect when he doesn’t really need to; the emotions come through unassisted. But there is much to enjoy in this film before rigor mortis sets in.

In his review, Scott called Departures “perfectly mediocre” and as much as I admire his command of the put-down, I think he is perhaps being unfairly harsh. For what it is - a quasi-profound human drama and comedy of manners - Departures is perfectly fine.

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