Stars: Masahiro Motoki, Ryoko Hirosue, Tsutomu Yamazaki
Director: Yojiro Takita
Oscar History: 1 nomination/1 win (Best Foreign Language Film-Japan*)
Snap Judgment Ranking: 2/5 stars
(Spoilers Ahead) That was my problem with a large part of Departures, the 2008 film that surprised Waltz with Bashir and The Class to win the 2008 Foreign Film Oscar. Let’s get a little bit into the plot first before we tackle that issue, though. The film is about Diago (Motoki) a man who has lost his way in his life. He once dreamed of being a concert cellist, but after a life of disappointments (including his father abandoning him when he was very young), he is without a job and living with his young, overly optimistic bride Mika (Hirosue) in a house he inherited from his mother.
He eventually gets a job as an assistant to a man who prepares bodies for cremation in a process known as encoffinment. It seems like the perfect situation for him-he makes a lot of money, doesn’t need any previous training (at this point he’s in his early 40’s and has little life experience outside of music so this is a serious plus), and can start right away. As we soon learn, though, the entire practice that Diago is assisting with is considered taboo and unclean, and his wife and his friends all insist that he stop doing it.
Here’s where my problem is. I get that this is a fairly American-centric viewpoint to take, and that all cultures have their own nuances that outsiders may not understand (I grew up in northern Minnesota in the land of lutefisk and hotdishes, so I am no stranger to the odd food combination). However, this isn’t a case where someone is eating something or believing something that we don’t fully understand-everyone dies, and from the looks of things plenty of people in Japan do this funeral ritual. It made zilch sense to me, therefore, that people should treat these people they hire to do work for them as if they are lepers. I get that there may have been an historical aspect to this, but the lack of logic bothered me pretty severely. This wasn’t like something like gay marriage, even, where the bigoted either didn’t participate at all or only participated deep in the closet-they clearly all employ these men out in the open, so why not give more respect?
This really took me out of the movie, which had both its good and its bad. The best parts were the funerals themselves, frequently mirroring The Messenger which would come a year later-I think it’s fascinating the way that different people encounter death, and I loved the intricacies of each funeral and the raw (but not always sad) emotions that came out of them. The outside story, about Diago overcoming his father’s abandonment and his wife learning what her husband does is in fact noble and not disgraceful was pretty standard fare and a little bit schmaltzy for my taste. Had the film handled Diago’s journey with a little less cliché (of course he’s going to have to eventually dress his dead father for his funeral-who didn’t see that coming?!?), this would have been a much better film.