When recently laid-off classical musician Daigo comes across a want ad for someone to help with “departures,” he thinks he’s applying for a job at a travel agency. Once hired, he is surprised to learn his new employer is a mortician and his job is to assist with a traditional Japanese funeral ritual.
The unexpected winner of the 2008 Best Foreign Language film Oscar (it beat out the highly-touted Waltz with Bashir and The Class), Departures is easily the best movie I’ve seen thus far this year. It opens in LA and NYC this Friday, and will be expanding across the US this summer courtesy of my fave distributor of GLBT films, Regent Releasing.
Departures has truly universal appeal. My “day job” is working with terminally-ill patients in a hospice, and this movie gets so much so right about death, grief and people’s fears of death. While it is an emotional rollercoaster, the film is beautifully done.
The ritual depicted in Departures is called “encoffination,” and is a formal washing and dressing of the deceased’s body prior to cremation. As Daigo (who is played by the attractive Masahiro Motoki, star of the original Japanese version of Shall We Dance?) quickly learns, death can strike anyone at any time. Those he encoffinates include young people, elderly people, seemingly healthy people and even a transgendered person. There is a moving moment related to the latter, Tomeo, whose father professes, “He may dress like a girl, but he’s still my son.”
Also moving is a subplot involving Daigo’s long-lost father. I strongly suggest you have Kleenex with you while viewing this film. There wasn’t a dry eye or nose in the house at the end of the screening I attended. I didn’t find Departures depressing, however. On the contrary, it is an often funny and ultimately just plain human story.
Departures is written and directed by the revered Yojiro Takita, who has been making films in Japan for the past 30+ years. I predict his Oscar-winning achievement here will translate into big box office, at least for a foreign language film.
Some of my fellow critics have been dissing Departures in recent weeks, with one calling it “a paean to the good-looking corpse” and another writing the movie off as “a relentlessly mediocre tear-jerker.” Don’t listen to these heartless pundits. Departures is a must-see.
UPDATE: Departures is now available on DVDfrom Amazon.com.
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Orange County and Long Beach Blade.