Departures

August, 2009, Drama

Directed by:Yōjirō Takita

Starring:Masahiro Motoki, Ryoko Hirosue, Tsutomu Yamazaki, Kimiko Yo, Kazuko Yoshiyuki, and Takashi Sasano

 

 

 

 

WARNING: due to excessive levels of emotional whiplash contained in its 2 hour and 10 minute running time, watching this quietly wrought blend of poignant drama and turgid soap opera could prove dangerous to your psychological health. Alternatively, it just might vex you to distraction.

 

Director Yojiro Takita has spent over a quarter of a century grinding out formulaic action/fantasy movies for domestic consumption in his native Japan. But working here from a screenplay by Kundo Koyama, (whose previous output consists solely of scripts for various television series) and with the lush visual eye of veteran cinematographer Takeshi Hamada, Takita has fashioned an often bewildering commentary on a most profound subject; the end of life as seen through the Japanese custom of preparing the human body for its final display. How he came to choose this subject matter is almost as incomprehensible as the fact that Departures won the Oscar for best foreign language film last year.

 

After his orchestra collapses financially, a failed cellist and his young wife return to his home town to live in the cramped apartment above his deceased mother’s tea room. Convinced he’s not good enough to continue pursuing a career as a musician and with no other marketable skills, the young man answers a mysterious newspaper add and soon finds himself apprenticed to a taciturn entrepreneur whose clients turn out to be undertakers who personally shun the necessary preparation of their clients’ bodies for funeral ceremonies. Initially repulsed by the thought of laboring over corpses and too embarrassed by the stigma attached to it to admit the true nature of his work, the young man lies about his new job. When his wife discovers his secret, she leaves him.

 

Yet the sensitivity his employer brings to his craft and the value his specialized skills bring to those members of the family, who by custom must carefully observe his efforts, permit the apprentice to find meaning and significance in his new calling despite the societal repugnance attached to it. He quickly graduates to performing these highly stylized rituals on his own and discovers that the emotions which his discreet handling of the dead elicit from those who attend the preparation ceremony provide him with a sense of vocational purpose while also allowing him to connect, in a small but meaning way, to the mother whose own funeral he was unable to attend.

 

When she discovers that she’s pregnant, the young man’s wife returns to him but continues to express her disapproval of his occupation until she learns that his father, estranged from the family for many years, has died alone and uncared for in a small fishing village nearby. She convinces her reluctant husband to prepare his father’s corpse for cremation and as she sees the connection which the wordless process creates between a long-absent father and his embittered son, she comes to realize the value of his work.

 

With beautifully-captured images and the calm, nuanced manner in which it records the intricate details of its subject matter, Departures fleetingly hints at the ineffable, but the heart of the film comes wrapped in sub-plots of such gargantuan mawkishness that the whole becomes a pastiche which destroys the value of its core. A clumsily handled visual joke about cross dressing, a hopelessly clichéd soliloquy by the operator of a crematorium involving the woman who ran the local public bathhouse and repeated scenes of the young man playing his cello, (designed to represent increasing self-acceptance) all point to a directorial impulse that careens from the profound to the maudlin with maddening frequency; Departures is genuinely touching one moment and inexplicably cloying the next, restrained in its examination of the manner in which we respond to the end of life in one scene and then repeatedly vapid about the events which lead up to it. As a result, the film becomes a third-rate melodrama which lurches from pathos to bathos and back again so often the significance of its hauntingly stylized rituals get lost in the miasma which surrounds them.

 

The Verdict? Moments of rare insight into how Japanese culture incorporates respect for the dead trapped inside an unforgivable piece of cinematic treacle.

 

 

 

 

 

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