Japan's 'Departures' pulls off Oscar upset

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TOKYO -- In one of the only upsets of the evening, Yojiro Takita's "Departures" won the foreign-language Oscar on Sunday, beating out highly touted competitors "Waltz With Bashir" and "The Class." The victory of Kuni Kato's animated short "La Maison en Petits Cubes" earlier in the evening made it Japan's most successful night in Academy history.

"Departures" got a rousing sendoff to the Oscars at the Japan Academy Prize on Friday, collecting 10 wins from 13 nominations, including best picture.

The story of an unemployed cellist (Masahiro Motoki) who finds work as a "nokanshi," or ceremonial preparer of corpses, was a low-level surprise hit at the domestic boxoffice, centered as it as around a subject even most urban Japanese are unfamiliar with. It took in $33 million in 2008 but failed to crack the top 10 domestic titles in a strong boxoffice year for Japanese films.

A hit on the international festival circuit, observers here believed it had a chance if "Waltz" and "Class" ended up splitting votes.

"It's interesting to see people from other countries and cultures laughing and crying at the same places Japanese audiences do. Even though the film is very Japanese in a way, the themes couldn't be more universal," director Takita told The Hollywood Reporter in December, before the film had been nominated.

The last Japanese Oscar winner was Hayao Miyazaki's "Spirited Away" in 2003, the same year Yoji Yamada's "Twilight Samurai" was nominated in the foreign-language category -- the last time a live-action Japanese film made it that far.

The last win for a non-animated Japanese film was Hiroshi Inagaki's "Miyamoto Musashi" in 1955, though Akira Kurosawa's Russian-Japanese project, "Dersu Uzala," won in 1975.
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