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With Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car this year’s frontrunner for best international feature film, Japan could win its second Academy Award in that category, formerly known as best foreign-language film. Rashomon (1950), Gate of Hell (1953) and Samurai, the Legend of Musashi (1954) received honorary awards before the category’s official introduction in 1956, and Spirited Away won best animated feature in 2003. But Departures was the first.
Its win on Feb. 22, 2009, marked a major upset. The favorites that year were Israel’s Waltz With Bashir, a documentary-animation hybrid (not unlike this year’s Flee), and France’s The Class, about a Parisian middle-school teacher. Departures, meanwhile, followed an unemployed cellist who answers what he thinks is a job listing for a travel agency — but turns out to be a mortician gig that requires him to prep bodies for cremation. The position makes him something of a social outcast, but he finds that he actually loves it.
The idea for Departures came from its star, Masahiro Motoki, who on a trip to India in the 1990s was struck by a funeral ceremony on the Ganges River. The film ultimately took a decade to make, partly because the taboo subject matter turned off potential producers. Director Yojiro Takita, who cut his teeth in Japan’s “pinku eiga” soft-core scene before going mainstream with Comic Magazine (1986), boarded the project in 2006.
The film had trouble finding distribution until it won the grand prize at the Montreal World Film Festival, leading it to open on 31 screens in Japan. After its Oscar upset, however, Departures expanded to 180 screens, eventually earning $60 million at Japan’s box office, making it the country’s highest-grossing domestic release that year.
In the Oscar press room immediately following the win, a shell-shocked Motoki — who studied cello and funeral rites for the role — told reporters: “I walked the red carpet as a hanger-on who just observes the ceremony. Now I regret that I did not walk with more confidence.”
This story first appeared in a January stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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