Departures -- Film Review

Bottom Line: A moving celebration of life through showing reverence for death

Hawaii International Film Festival

HONOLULU, Hawaii -- An out-of-work cellist finds a new lease of life as a corpse cosmetician when he develops professional pride and respect for the dead in the heartwarming and humorous "Departures." Yojiro Takita, who directed enduring commercial hits like "The Ying Yang Master" and "The Yen Family," has made a popular gem -- thematically respectable, technically hard to fault, artfully scripted to entertain and touch.

This Oscar-entry from Japan won the Grand Prix at Montreal World Film Festival and has made several festival rounds. Cinemas catering to semi-mainstream, artistically-inclined audiences would be a likelier overseas outlet than elite arthouse.

Following his orchestra's disbanding, Daigo (Masahiro Motoki) resettles in his deep north hometown with his wife Mika (Ryoko Hirosue). He responds to an ad for "Journey Assistant" thinking it's for a travel agency. After some droll beating around the bush by boss Sasaki (Tsutomu Yamazaki), he finds out that they are in the "encoffinment" business.

"Departures" invokes the quintessentially Japanese "artisan's soul" -- a work ethic of utmost devotion to any profession. The attentive and ceremonious manner in which makeovers is performed before bodies are placed in their coffins is eye-opening. The film gently satirizes modern society's denial of the physical aspect of death through Daigo's initial shame and squeamishness about his job, and the social disdain he experiences. The scene of him wolfing down fried chicken suggests his appetite for life is eventually whetted by confronting mortality daily -- a reconnection with nature's cycle.

The film can be taxed with being a little too long and too sentimental. Joe Hisaishi's score is unabashedly romantic and the cinematography is ravishing, but there are few moments of inner contemplation. Even when Daigo is alone playing the cello, the scenes are heavily embellished with swooping shots, a heavenly countryside backdrop and rhapsodic strings.

This is compensated for by some skillful comic relief and warm rapport among the cast, especially the filial relationship Daigo develops for Sasaki who stands-in for his absent father. Motoki's performance is rich with nuance, but Yamazaki takes expressiveness to a new level, remaining unperturbed, inscrutable and affectionately condescending at all times.

Production companies: Shochiku Co. Ltd, TBS, Amuse Soft Entertainment, Asahi Shimbunsha, Dentsu, Mainichi Hoso, Sedic, Shagakukan.
Cast: Masahiro Motoki, Yamazaki Tsutomu, Ryoko Hirose, Yo Kimiko.
Director: Yojiro Takita.
Screenwriter: Kundo Koyama.
Based on the story by: Shinmon Aoki.
Production: Nobukuni Ichiro.
Executive producer: Yasuhiro Mase.
Producers: Toshiaki Nakazawa, Toshihisa Asai.
Director of photography: Takeshi Hamada.
Production designer: Fumio Ogawa.
Music: Joe Hisaishi.
Costume designer: Katsuhiko Kitamura..
Editor: Akimasa Kawashima.
Sales: Shochiku Co. Ltd .
No rating, 130 minutes.