When Liam Neeson opened the envelope at the 2009 Academy Awards and announced that Departures had beat out Waltz With Bashir, the supposedly mortal-lock winner, and another highly touted nominee, The Class, for Best Foreign Film, it was a shocker unlike anything seen since that category became remotely competitive. Departures was a film that, unlike Bashiror The Class, had not yet opened in America, not even on the festival circuit. No one had heard of this little picture, but still it ended up at the top of the heap.
It follows the fate of Daigo (Masahiro Motoki), a professional cellist living in Tokyo. He is starting out with a new orchestra that promptly disbands, leaving him in the lurch and saddled with a huge debt to settle for his new cello – a gift to himself for getting into an orchestra. He returns to his home village with his wife, Mika (Ryoko Hirosue), where, trying to get back on his feet, he answers the world’s most poorly worded want ad.
Daigo’s unexpected new gig is in “encoffinment,” working as a mix of undertaker and showman to prepare the dead for their next journey. It’s not something hidden away in the funeral-home basement, but rather performed as a ceremony in front of the family before cremation. It’s a superficial job on the surface, of course – death cannot be erased with a makeup brush – but it’s a profoundly soothing act for the families of the dead. To the living, especially to Mika, it’s a dirty, misunderstood occupation, one that causes Daigo many problems. Cellist, we get. It has some prestige to it. Music is lifeblood; it moves, ascends and takes you to another place. But a mid-row cellist in this day, especially in Japan, is not a necessary component of life. Entombing, however, is a vital part of death.
Motoki plays Daigo with more of a pop-film slapstick edge than I would have preferred, but he never goes so far with it that it detracts from the story. When he does come perilously near the edge of that cliff, Tsutomu Yamazaki (his boss) and the always wonderful Hirosue are there to reel him back in just in time. It’s a tightrope Motoki and Yamazaki walked right to the Japanese Academy Awards as well, winning 10 overall.
Am I giving awards too much importance? Probably, but it’s a noteworthy achievement for a film with no other discernible hook. Crouching Tiger introduced us to a vibrant new actress in Zhang Ziyi, and The Lives of Others tapped into both our national obsession with the Iron Curtain and our fear of government wiretapping and reprisal. But there is nothing so sparkling to this film at first glance. It’s a film about man’s mortality and how he handles it, but death is not cleverly hidden inside a bigger story. It’s a wake-up slap in the face about the gritty part of dying: the bodies.