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Posted by admin | Posted in Movies | Posted on 14-09-2010


When his orchestra disbands, Daigo Kobayashi moves back to his hometown and takes a job preparing corpses for burial. Too embarrassed to admit his new career to his family, Daigo keeps his profession a secret, until he’s faced with the death of someone close to him. Academy Award Winner for Best Foreign Film.Amazon.com
Departures is surely the gentlest, sweetest movie about death that you will ever see. A cellist named Diago (Masahiro Motoki) comes to the ruef… More >>


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The original Japanese title of “Departures” (2008) is “Okuribito” which means literally “a person who sends” in Japanese or in this case, “encoffiner,” a person who performs a ritual at funeral before putting the body into a coffin. But you should not let the film’s subject matter put you off watching the film because “Departures” offers a fascinating insight into life and death as well as a moving drama with universal themes. And believe me or not, it is also a comedy.

Yes, “Departures” begins with an amusing scene in which young okuribioto Daigo Kobayashi (Masahiro Motoki) is about to perform the ritual for the first time without a help from his employer and senior okuribito Ikuei Sasaki (Tsutomu Yamazaki). But in the midst of the solemn rite, Daigo notices something unexpected about the body. Not knowing what to do, Daigo asks for Ikuei’s advice, but for what?

After the opening sequence that sets the overall tone of the entire film with the low-key comic approach, “Departures” follows the story of Daigo, formerly a cello player by profession, who starts to work as okuribito (formally called “nokanshi”) in his hometown. During the film’s two hours we are introduced to the work of nokanshi, which can be very hard at times, but the Oscar-winning film is also a great success as a touching drama about an ordinary man who discovers the meaning of his life through deaths.

Though some part of the script looks rather conventional, “Departures” benefits from the fine cast who has successfully become believable characters you can relate to. Masahiro Motoki is very good as the mild-mannered protagonist and so is Ryoko Hirosue (seen in “Wasabi” opposite Jean Reno) as his loving wife, but the film’s best performance is that of veteran Tsutomu Yamazaki (Juzo Itami’s “The Funeral”), whose slightly enigmatic character adds humor and humanity to the story as quiet employer (and mentor-like figure) of Daigo.

Shot in several locations (mainly Sakata City and Tsuruoka City) in Yamagata Prefecture, Japan, “Departures” has stunningly beautiful scenes of the country, especially the one in which Daigo plays the cello against the snow-capped Mt. Chokai. Also, composer Jo Hisaishi (best known for Hayao Miyazaki’s acclaimed animated films) gives a powerful and emotional musical score.

There is no word in English that exactly describes what a “nokanshi” does. He is not a mortician or embalmer, and not every funeral in Japan is attended by a nokanshi. I am Japanese, but I never even heard of the name before watching the film. Interestingly it is star Masahiro Motoki who thought of making a movie about nokanshi. According to the interview with him (in a pamphlet I bought at the theater in Kyoto), Motoki was inspired by his experiences in India and one book written by a real-life nokanshi. The book (though not credited in the film) is “Nokanhu Nikki” (“Diary of a Nokanhu”) by Shinmon Aoki published in 1993. It took more than ten years for him to realize his idea of making this film and I am sure the wait was more than worth it.

In “Departures” director Yojiro Takita (“Onmyoji”) did a fine job of telling a good story with just the right amount of sentiment, humor and pathos. I hope that you will enjoy watching “Departures” as I did.
Rating: 5 / 5

This movie is well-deserving of the Academy Award this past year for the Best Foreign Film. Though this movie talks about death and the vocation of “encoffining” (a ceremony ritual where the deceased is washed and dressed up in beautiful make-up and clothing to make it easier for surviving family members to pay their last respects) — it is really about the celebration of the dignity and value of human life. We all have to die sometime but how do you help grieving family members to pay their last respects to their loved one with dignity and respect?

Many of the reviewers have done a great job of summarizing the story. I want to bring out some of the wonderful themes in this movie.

1) The dignity and value of human life — seldom in a movie have I been touched by the message of how valuable a human life is. The vocation of encoffining was despised by the people in the film. Daigo also despised it at first, but then he got to see how important this vocation is — how it is a different way to pursue an art and a science. In the beginning, Daigo tries to be a professional cellist — playing the cello well is an art and a science. As he begins to get more involved in encoffining with the mentorship and coaching of his boss, he gets to see that encoffining is a very noble vocation — the whole goal is to help grieving families to say goodbye to their loved one with dignity and respect. The grieving families get to see the bodies of their loved ones treated with tender affection and displayed in a beautiful way. As Daigo discovers, along with people close to him, “encoffining” is just as much an art and a science as playing the cello, but with even more impact for humanity. The first and last scenes of the movie are fitting bookends.

2. Reconciliation and acceptance — The movie also shows the powerful impact of reconciliation and acceptance, as Daigo discovers in the film. Sadly, some of the characters in the film had a hard time to accept family members while they were alive, but the graceful and beautiful encoffining ritual helped them to see the deceased family member in a new light. There was reconciliation and acceptance that finally took place.

3. The breaking down of stereotypes — One of the wonderful aspects of this film is the portrayal of stereotypes and how they are dismantled. The typical Japanese person has the negative stereotype of the vocation of encoffining as “dirty”. However, when they get to see how important encoffining is to help family members pay their last respects to their loved ones, and witness the beauty and grace of the ceremony, their stereotypes are broken down, and they come to see the nobility of this profession. We all have negative stereotypes either of people or vocations, but when we become better informed and reach more accurate understanding, our negative stereotypes are broken down, and we become more respectful and accepting of other people who are different than us. We come to see that the great majority of vocations are very noble in their own right.

4. The importance of telling loved ones how much they mean to you when they’re still alive. As Daigo gets more contacts and more work in encoffining, he begins to see the importance of telling his loved ones how much they mean to him. One of the most touching moments in the film is when Daigo clings to his wife and tells her non-verbally how much he loves her. After dealing with death on a daily basis, he comes to recognize how important his loved ones are in real life. He comes to treasure life and the lives of his loved ones.

There are excellent reviews written by the others who have so eloquently described this film. I wanted to share with you how I was moved by the positive themes that were expressed in such a graceful and artful way by this remarkable film.

This is a movie that will move you deeply and touch your soul. You’ll remember this film for a long time. Highly recommended!
Rating: 5 / 5


A Journey with Death

Amos Lassen

Oscar winner for best foreign film 2009, “Departures” is the story of Daigo Kobayashi (Masahiro Motoki), a cellist in an orchestra that has been dissolved and he finds himself without a job. He decides to move back to his home town with his wife and to begin searching for work. He answers an ad, “Departures” assuming it as an advertisement for a travel agency but what he discovers is that the job is for a funeral professional who prepares dead bodies for both burial and for the next life. He loves and takes great pride in this job even though his wife and friends hate it. He looks at this job as being a gatekeeper between those that have died and their families and through his job he discovers the wonder and joy of being alive.

Most people look down on those who earn money from death as Daigo, himself, did at first. Little by little, he comes to a new understanding of his own life and he draws us in. We also learn about a wonderful ceremony and it is incredible to watch as the undertaker handles the corpse with complete and total care and reverence and precision. How many of us are really aware what goes on as a corpse is prepared for burial and as we see this we gain a new respect for those that prepare the dead.

Death, as we see it here, is a step toward another world and even though this is a Buddhist ideal, we can all relate to it especially if we have lost someone that we have loved.

This could very easily have become a movie that abounds with sentimentality but the it does not, It plays with our emotions without overt manipulation. Motoki turns in a brilliant performance which both makes us laugh and has us understand inner turmoil. We see the real pain of death as it stays with those who remain alive, the mourners. It is rituals like what we see in “Departures” that comfort and enchant us and see us through the pain of loss. The movie will male you laugh and make you cry and it is played against a beautiful and intriguing orchestral score.

Rating: 5 / 5

“Okuribito” is the story of a failed Tokyo musician, Daigo (Masahiro Motoki), who returns to his childhood home in rural Yamagata in northern Japan to find himself. Seeing an ad in the newspaper for “someone to assist with journeys”, he shows up at NK Agency for an interview.

Upon meeting the boss, Mr. Sasaki (Tsutomu Yamazaki), a brusque and humorous exchange takes place in which he tosses Daigo’s resume onto the coffee table and hires him after asking a total of one question. Daigo is taken aback by the boss’s nonchalant attitude (he doesn’t know Daigo’s name and plays with a potted cactus), lack of details, and high salary offer of $5,000 a month, paid in cash.

After finding out that the ad was the result of a misprint and the job involves en-coffining the deceased, Daigo becomes very uncomfortable and tries to refuse. Sasaki hands Daigo $200 just for showing up, and says it is fate. This is a word that will come back again several times in the film. Needing the money, he takes the job reluctantly and goes home to his wife. Not wanting her to know what he has done, he tells her it’s ceremony-related, which she assumes to be a wedding hall. Daigo does not correct her.

The interview scene is perfectly acted and timed, and just one example of the superlative acting and nuances in this film. For speakers of Japanese, there are added layers of complexity that simply does not translate, so it’s worth explaining briefly. While Daigo’s speech is polite Japanese (as would be expected), Sasaki’s is brusque “Ah, kimi ka?” (Oh, it’s you.) Hearing the residents of the town speak the rural Yamagata dialect is also a lot of fun. Daigo’s speech through most of the film is polite Standard Japanese.

Of course, an understanding of Japanese language and culture is not a pre-requisite for enjoying Okuribito. While the film is distinctly Japanese, the themes of love, self-discovery, dedication to the perfection of an ideal, and finding peace with oneself, with life, and with death, are universal. Death, a taboo subject in many societies, including our own, is treated here with humor, respect, compassion, and wisdom. It is easy to see why this film won the Academy Award for best foreign film and went on to be a runaway success in Japan. As the movie progresses, Diago becomes more confident in himself and accepts his fate. Seeing the love that Mr. Sasaki devotes to his work and the gratitude of the grieving families, Daigo soon comes to take pride in his job.

The movie is filled with charming characters and heartwarming moments, like the Zen-like old man at the bath house and its owner, and Mr Sasaki. The fatherly Sasaki becomes a surrogate father for Daigo, who’s own abandoned him and his mother at a young age. (Fans of Japanese cinema may recognize Yamazaki from the classic film “Tampopo”.)

This is an excellent film that will warm your heart and is worth watching again and again. I am looking forward to its release on Blu-ray and DVD.
Rating: 5 / 5

Japanese films have always had the remarkable reputation of turning the simplest premise into something so full of moving emotions and sensibilities. Yojiro Takita’s multi-award winning film “DEPARTURES” (2008) is no different. There is a lot of excessive hype surrounding the film as it has almost nearly swept the Japanese Academy awards and has been awarded the Best Foreign film honor in the recent 2009 Oscars. No film can live up to the hype it has gotten, but I have to say it has earned each and every recognition; well deserving of the commercial success it had achieved in its native land.

Daigo Kobayashi (Masahiro Motoki) is a cello player whose dream is shattered when the orchestra he is playing with goes broke. Left with no choice but to sell his prized cello, Daigo together with his wife Mika (beauteous Ryoko Hirosue) returns to his hometown to live in his mother’s old house. In need of a new job, Daigo responds to an ad in the local paper for a job in “Departures”, thinking that it may be related to travel. But much to his surprise and dismay, Daigo discovers that he had applied for a profession as an `Encofineer’; a man who performs the delicate and traditional Japanese ritual of preparing the bodies of the deceased for the departure to the next life–it pays quite well, and without even thinking about it, he accepts without even giving his wife the details of his new job.

It is not often that we become privy to a film about the beautifying of corpses, director Takita takes on the grim subject matter and gives it a commercial charm and appeal. The direction is quite meticulous in exposing the world of the mortician as we become witnesses to the Japanese customs and traditions as to how they deal with their dead. Takita shows that the profession demands a certain amount of sensitivity as we see the different reactions of those left behind by the deceased; some are angry, some are funny, most are overwhelmed by grief and some are curiously joyful. In Daigo’s profession, there are no religious affiliation; they do what they do to preserve the memory of the deceased, remembering them as the way they used to be and not who they are in the present.

It is a safe bet that a premise such as this may be unusual even for Japanese audiences and one of the film’s key to success is the way it executes its grim subject matter through some doses of subtle humor in the film’s first act. Writer Kundo Koyama and the direction by Takita meticulously eases the premise into the audience, as we were privy to Daigo and Sasaki’s encounter with an extra “thing” to a supposedly female corpse. We see Masahiro Motoki’s deadpan humor as he becomes repulsed by his first job, and just how he eventually becomes comfortable with his new career. Takita cleverly illustrates the short moments in the ceremony that our morticians get to know the deceased quite intimately.

After everything sinks in, then the emotional scenes begin to take hold, as we learn more of Daigo’s childhood, his problems with his wife’s disapproval of his new job and his anger towards his father who had left him while he was a child to run off with a younger woman. Now this is a commercial film and we know that eventually people close to Daigo will eventually come to respect what he does for a living, it is a little predictable but the journey with which the film gets to where it wishes to go is well-played that the screenplay becomes somewhat of a melancholy with a rhythm that just looks so beautiful. Mika (played by Ryoko Hirosue) is just so lovable as the diligent wife; she is just so full of love and trust that her character represents the goodness within the Japanese woman. It was touching to see Daigo perform a ceremony in his wife’s presence and director Takita carefully manipulates the camera work to show pure emotion. Takita also injects some sequences that are beautiful to awaken the emotion (sort of serves as a vanguard) as we see Daigo playing the cello on a hill as if he was reaching out again to his dreams. The film also has beautiful cinematography and emotion-inducing score to match its otherwise simple but grim premise to keep the film running at a brisk pace.

The film has two significant scenes that seemed to induce quite a few sniffles, they were injected to give a twist that plays a significant part in Daigo’s life. The first one does provoke a lot of emotion; it is full of tear-inducing sequences that can definitely touch its audience. However, it does feel a little overlong that the second twist may lose some of the narrative impact to the inexperienced viewer. The two twists do work in unison in the screenplay but some may argue that Takita was working too hard to induce emotion working one twist right after the other. I didn’t find anything wrong with it and I thought it stuck to its sensibilities in reflecting just how life can sometimes throw you in for a curve.

The performances are quite good, Motoki (who won best actor in Japan) and Hirosue has some dynamic chemistry between them and the supporting characters made up of Sasaki, Yuriko (co-employee played by Kimiko Yo) and the woman (Kazuko Yoshiyuki) who runs a bath house plays their own significance in the script. I loved the way Yamazaki played Sasaki, it was like a cool and quiet boss as he always seemed to say “its fine.”

Despite some flaws in the screenplay that the film came dangerously close in becoming too sentimental, “Departures” is easily one of the best commercial films to come out from Japan. The last act will leave an impression that no matter how we see ourselves and others, death sometimes is the one thing that can bring a family together. The film’s biggest ace would have to come from its ability to induce the proper emotion at the right minute with such simplicity. Such critical acclaim will no doubt raise the film to unreasonable expectations, and while it may not change the course of Japanese cinema, it is not pretentious and never hides behind its beautiful visual style. The way to approach this film is with tempered expectations, so that the film can touch you in its journey that is both surprising and pleasurable.

Highly Recommended! [4 ½ + Stars]

The release looks great and sounds great. The 1.78 ratio anamorphic widescreen video transfer is vivid and clean. It also has a 5.1 Dolby Digital Track Japanese language track. Subtitles are well timed and translated.

Rating: 5 / 5

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