The members of the Academy who gave Departures its Oscar must be feeling their mortality. The movie tells the story of a second-rate cellist who loses his job when an orchestra is disbanded but finds inner peace and fulfillment working as a nokanshi, ceremonially preparing the bodies of the newly deceased before they are placed in coffins for cremation. Maybe the Academy’s elderly voters appreciated the way that the man’s newfound serenity guides him to an emotional rapprochement with his hated father, who abandoned him with the gift of a pebble when he was a small child. But it seems more likely that their enthusiasm was triggered by the lengthy demonstrations of the nokan ceremonies themselves: the discreet sanitizing of the dead body, the arrangement of limbs, and, especially, the dressing and application of makeup. The movie is a paean to the good-looking corpse.
The scripting of Departures (by Kundo Koyama, the one-man TV-drama writing factory who nurtured such delights as Iron Chef) is embarrassingly clunky and obvious: the movie’s essential hollowness reveals itself with unusual starkness. Protagonist Daigo Kobayashi is maneuvered into the undertaking profession through a series of feeble narrative contrivances. He conceals the true nature of his job from his young wife (the script has laboriously established that he’s done such things before), and so she walks out when she discovers what he actually does after discovering an instructional video in which he plays a corpse and has gauze stuffed up his anus to prevent seepage. However, women being the simple creatures that they are, she returns as soon as she discovers that she’s pregnant, and it takes only one attendance at a nokan ceremony to reconcile her to hubby’s line of work and then to take the initiative in helping Daigo overcome his hatred of his absent father. All of this takes place against a backdrop shift from the bustle and glitz of metropolitan Tokyo to the rural tranquility of Yamagata Prefecture, conveniently home to the wild geese whose migratory patterns so poetically symbolize the departing soul.
Daigo is played, quite adequately, by Masahiro Motoki, who has trodden these paths before. His claim to stardom dates from the early Nineties, when he not only posed for a volume of nude photographs by Kishin Shinoyama but also starred in two movies by Masayuki Suo, Fancy Dance (89) and Sumo Do, Sumo Don’t (92), in both of which he played hip young slackers discovering their inner maturity through immersion in Japan’s ancient traditions, Buddhism and sumo wrestling respectively. Departures is a virtual rerun of the same scenario, and so Shochiku didn’t need to scratch their corporate heads long over the casting. They didn’t have much trouble with Daigo’s mentor figure Sasaki either; the eccentric but kind-hearted old man, who started a nokan company after the death of his wife, is played by the grizzled Tsutomu Yamazaki, who has been trading in characters like this at least since Tampopo (86). Choosing the director must have been a cinch too. Over a long career which started in soft porn in the early Eighties, Yojiro Takita has distinguished himself by never imposing any ideas of his own on the scripts that companies have thrown at him; Shochiku evidently turned to him again because the lumbering samurai movie he made for them in 2003, When the Last Sword Is Drawn, sold relatively well overseas. None of this matters, of course, and Departures will be forgotten tomorrow. Ironically, though, two of 2008’s best films were made in Japan: Ryosuke Hashiguchi’s All Around Us and Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Still Walking. They, however, remain unreleased outside Japan.