Once again I find myself writing under the influence of various prescription narcotics as I recover from my latest malady, so please accept the usual apologies for any slurred typing or off kilter ramblings. Well, any more than usual, anyway.
Departures is a film I feel I should have heard more about. I don’t stay abreast of foreign features as much as I’d like, but I feel that whenever any that are widely deemed great come along, then the chances are that I’ve at least heard of them, yet ‘s slow, personal, moving story of an unemployed cellist discovering self confidence in the most unlikeliest of places has completely passed me by, despite winning the Best Foreign Language Oscar in 2009, beating out the likes of Waltz With Bashir, The Baader Meinhof Complex and The Class, all of which I’ve heard of and two of which I’ve seen. I can’t really explain why I’ve not heard of it, though I’m certain it was never released in any cinemas near me, hardly surprising, considering how many screens were booked up for Twilight: New Moon, released one week previously.
The aforementioned cellist is Daigo Kobayashi (Masahiro Motoki), a possible relation to Pete Postlethwaite’s character in the Usual Suspects. His Tokyo orchestra plays for more-than-half empty audiences, so the owner dissolves the group and Daigo, lacking the self confidence the seek employment elsewhere, sells his cello and moves back with his wife, Mika (Ryoko Hirosue) to the house his mother left him when she passed away. Daigo’s search for employment leads him to a vague newspaper advertisement and a nondescript building. Without even fully realising the job he has unwittingly applied for, Daigo is hired. The career path he has just found himself travelling along? Preparing the dead for their funerals.
Now to me, this job doesn’t sound quite as disgusting as is made out in the film, as similarly to Daigo I’ve never seen a corpse or even a coffin. Yet Daigo’s initial reaction is shame and repulsion – he tells his wife that his job is doing ‘ceremonies’ which, although technically correct, is probably not what she was thinking. His first encounter with a member of the deceased results in a trip to the baths probably longer than advised (though in all fairness the corpse in question had been left to fester for two weeks, and there were maggots crawling around on the nearby plates of food), and when the people around him begin to realise the nature of his profession, he is soon told to get a ‘proper’ job, or be shamed forever. I don’t think it’s racist to say that this may have something to do with the greater focus on dignity and shame in the Japanese culture, in fact I consider it an admirable quality, and one that we could indeed use more of in the West, but I find the extreme nature of the reactions Daigo’s career choice receives to be more exaggerated than I was expecting.
The film is beautifully shot, and though I’ve only seen one of his films. I can see a clear influence from Yasujiro Ozu, especially in the limited camera movements, with most of the scenes imbued with a quiet stillness, shot with the same level of calmness and precision with which Daigo attends to his clients. Although music played a large part in the film, I cannot for the life of me remember it having a great effect upon me, which I find especially surprising considering the amount of praise other reviews have lauded upon that aspect. From what I can remember, the occasional cello performances were beautiful, but I’m afraid my personal knowledge of classical music is far from extensive, so the overall effect was a little lost on me. It did add to the serene nature of the film though.
I’ve been known to at times criticise a film for being too slow, but here I felt the more lethargic pace was very fitting, and I rarely felt the need to glance at my watch even at 130 minutes long. However, there are only so many scenes of someone breaking into tears at a funeral that I can take, and seeing as the film takes place at a lot of different ceremonies, this took up a larger portion of the film than was strictly necessary.
Plot-wise, there were a couple of elements that I was certain were going to result in an annoying third-act twist, but I’m grateful this wasn’t the case, and the story played out entirely straight, yet wasn’t necessarily predictable. There was a great deal more comedy than expected – Daigo’s first ceremony, and the role he plays on his first day of the job in a marketing video – which definitely helped to alleviate what would have otherwise been a very sombre affair.
Though initially I had put off watching this film, for fear of an overly morbid subject matter, I was left not necessarily bounding with joy, but satisfied, and content.
Choose film 8/10