The film already achieved stellar box office results when it first screened in Japan this past September and is currently screening for the second time in Japan after winning the Academy Awards. U.S. distributor Regent Releasing is also planning to distribute the film in select U.S. cities starting this May.
Daigo Kobayashi (Masahiro Motoki) is an aspiring cellist newly hired by a symphony in Tokyo. No sooner than Daigo’s first performance with the orchestra he receives the devastating news that the orchestra will be disbanded. Daigo made the fateful decision to mortgage his future by purchasing a cello that cost well over $100,000. Now he has to break the news to his faithful wife (Ryoko Hirosue). When she asks Daigo what his plans are now, he suggests they move back to his rural hometown Yamagata and start over again. Daigo’s wife smiles and agrees to follow him to Yamagata.
After the couple settles into their new home, Daigo looks for a job. He finds a listing in the newspaper advertising a position that requires little hours, no experience, and centers around helping out others on their journeys. Daigo assumes the position is for a travel agent, but when he arrives at the office, he realizes the job is for an “encoffineer” (Nokanshi) - similar to an embalmer in the U.S., but requires the encoffineer to work in front of the deceased in a ceremony steeped in tradition. The job of an “encoffineer” is not a popular one in Japan and people often look down on the job as dirty. Daigo tries to keep his job secret, but soon rumors spreads around the small town. When Daigo’s wife learns of his new job, she gives him the ultimatum to quit his job or she’ll leave him.
“Departures” isn’t a heavy film per se, but it does eloquently examine the effects of death as it relates to those closest to the deceased. The film also respectfully showcases the art found in the encoffineer’s work. This is particularly important to the Japanese, as the movie portrays the common perception of these workers as people who are reviled. Masahiro Motoki always uses his hands as gracefully applying make-up on the deceased as he does when playing the cello. The message that comes out loud and clear is that the work performed by encoffineers are as artful as classical music. Departures also brings to light the importance of living life to the fullest as well as the importance of forgiveness. In one particularly moving scene, Daigo Kobayashi and his wife watches from the distance as a lady he has known all his life ends her journey, while a worker at the funeral home remarks that it feels like her journey is about to begin.
Performances all around are excellent, with nary a single shabby performance found in the movie. Masahiro Motoki obviously takes center stage and impresses throughout the movie (especially so when you compare his brilliant performance in “Departures” with his lifeless turn in last year’s “The Longest Night in Shanghai”). Ryoko Hirosue is cute as button in the film and the manner in which she always accepts Daigo’s ways until placing her placing foot firmly down when it comes to his new job works wonderfully to drive home the stigma carried by encoffineers. Tsutomu Yamazaki also brought out a lot of color, without ever saying a whole lot, in his supporting role as Daigo’s mentor and boss. At times, Tsutomu Yamazaki’s character felt like a continuation of his role from “Crying Out Love, in the Center of the World.”
Although it would have been so easy for “Departures” to lay on the sappiness, the picture always opts for the graceful route as it tells its powerful tale about life, death, and awakening. A large cross-generational group of viewers will likely find the movie inspirational. Although I don’t feel “Departures” is even the best Japanese film of the year (my vote would go to Tokyo Sonata), it’s still nice to find the Academy Awards bring to light such a strong Japanese film for the masses.