LOS ANGELES - A surprise winner of this year's foreign-language Oscar, beating out front-runners "Waltz With Bashir" and "The Class," the Japanese dramedy "Departures" has its moments but is ultimately overlong and too melodramatic.
Director Yojiro Takita and writer Kundo Koyama begin with an intriguing premise, though: After the symphony orchestra he plays for disbands, cellist Daigo Kobayashi (Masahiro Motoki) leaves Tokyo and returns to his hometown with his sunny, supportive wife, Mika (Ryoko Hirosue). There, he answers a help-wanted ad he thinks is from a travel agency, but in this case, the word "departures" pertains to the dead. (The long, wooden boxes in the office should have given him a clue.)
But Daigo needs the money, and even though he has zero experience in this area, he trains with the company's crusty owner, Sasaki (Tsutomu Yamazaki), in the ritual of encoffination. This is the washing, clothing and placing of the deceased into a coffin while family members watch and grieve.
Daigo is disgusted at first but he struggles to maintain his typical dignity, which provides the film's early comedy. You could very easily imagine an English-language remake of "Departures"; the awkward situations are built right in, and such a juxtaposition of death and dark humor already has been explored this spring in the charming "Sunshine Cleaning."
But in time, Daigo comes to appreciate the beauty of the act, the care that goes into it and the closure it provides for the loved ones left behind. It's a lovely and moving process, and Takita treats it with due delicacy and respect - but because it is a process, he shows it to us repeatedly in its entirety, which makes "Departures" way longer than it needs to be. And too often, Daigo's interaction with the families turns maudlin, which is unnecessary: The state in which we're seeing them is clearly emotional enough on its own.
As a subplot, Daigo has neglected to tell his wife the true nature of his work because there's a social stigma attached to it. She thinks he's some sort of tour guide, and in a way he is - leading people to their final destination. But the lie he tells her leads to a predictable rift and eventual reconciliation.
"Departures" ends up being most effective in the details: the inappropriate outbursts and confrontations among the bereaved, the manner in which Daigo carefully folds the richly detailed material around the bodies, even the bleak, snowy landscape as he drives to an assignment at a particularly low point in his own life. Although the film is about the huge and universal topic of death, these smaller moments provide it with some life. *