Confronting death -- gently
‘Departures’’ is an art-house crowd pleaser about death, a film that touches on profound matters even as it sentimentalizes them into emotional compost. It’s easy to see why the film won the foreign-language Oscar in February over better, tougher works like “Waltz With Bashir,’’ “The Class,’’ and “Revanche.’’ This is the kind of tastefully poignant drama that asks its audience to confront taboos and then pats them on the back for doing so.
As such, it’s reasonably engrossing, with a topic whose depth and resonance can be mined even by a proficient journeyman like director Yojiro Takita. That topic is the Japanese funeral custom of washing and dressing corpses to prepare them for the afterlife.
As you’d expect, it’s a ritual, one with its own sense of time, rhythm, and meaning. In the hands of an aging master such as Sasaki-san (Tsutomu Yamazaki), it can be a powerfully beautiful symphony to the dead, played out in front of the grieving family. For a newcomer like Sasaki’s young assistant, Daigo Kobayashi (Masahiro Motoki), it offers a more personal connection to life.
Daigo, who’s the central figure of “Departures,’’ is a failure when the film begins, a Tokyo-based cellist whose small-time orchestra has just gone under. With his extremely cheerful wife, Mika (Ryoko Hirosue), offering support, he moves back to his childhood town and finds the only job he can, helping the deadpan Sasaki with “departures.’’ At first he thinks he’ll be working for a travel company. He’s not far off, actually.
“Departures’’ gets some good, squeamish comedy out of Daigo’s apprenticeship (his appearance in a mortuarial trade video joyously pushes the discomfort buttons), but it has a number of emotional ducks to line up in a row. The most pressing is the hero’s still-burning resentment over the father who abandoned him in childhood, an anger that blocks Daigo’s way forward. Mika’s horror at finally discovering her husband’s day job presents another wrinkle to be smoothed away in the film’s patient, predictable journey.
The funeral sequences are easily the film’s most moving, the two men attending to each departed soul’s bodily shell with tenderness and artistry. Still, “Departures’’ belabors its point that everyone who can’t deal with death comes around once they see how gracefully Sasaki and Daigo dress it up. The movie comes close to aestheticizing grief even as it says that art and ritual may be the best ways to cope with it.
Part of the film’s failure to connect may simply be cultural. As played by Hirosue, the hero’s wife is an annoyingly passive-aggressive noodle, and the score by Joe Hisaishi is far more saccharine and shallow than his work for animator Hayao Miyazaki. At its best, “Departures’’ is a middlebrow movie of uncommonly quiet power. At its worst, it’s a TV film that got away.