Winner of this year's foreign-film Oscar, Departures veers from comedy to drama, occasionally taking a rest stop on the shoulder of sentiment. Yojiro Takita's movie simultaneously tickles tears of mourning as it wrings laughs about the meaning of life.
Departures opens with an arrival. Headlights blazing, a car threads through thick fog to a home in the mountains of rural Japan. In the vehicle are undertakers headed for a "casketing," the preparing of a corpse for its next passage: cremation.
Daigo (Masahiro Motoki), an out-of-work cellist whose symphony orchestra has disbanded, is the apprentice undertaker. His master is Ikuei (Tsutomu Yamazaki, familiar from the Juzo Itami comedies Tampopo and A Taxing Woman), a gruff man who works through his grief by helping others work through theirs.
Daigo, recently married and in debt, comes to think of his new job as something akin to an afterlife travel agent. He practices the art of "encoffinment" - the ritual bathing, dressing and makeup of the departed while the bereaved watch - with the delicacy and spiritual concentration of ikebana (traditional Japanese flower-arrangement).
As Daigo gracefully performs his work, the rough and ragged threads of life are neatly tied and wrapped in the smoothest of silks. Here is a maestro who can coax music from a cello or a corpse. Still, Daigo is ashamed to tell his wife what he does for a living. As gently as he tidies and dresses his clients, that's how roughly he scrubs himself to remove the stench of death. Like the heroines of Sunshine Cleaning, Daigo sees himself as a cleanser of souls and exorcist of negative spirits.
He wonders whether his is the fate of one who failed to take proper care of his dying mother. And when he sees fractious families reconcile during his funeral preparations, he broods that he has been denied the chance to make his peace with the father who abandoned him.
Despite an unnecessary montage of Daigo playing his cello in verdant valleys, Departures is for the most part trim. It is enhanced by the lean performances of Motoki, a Japanese pop star with a worried brow and pursed lips like those of Daniel Craig, and Yamazaki, who gives the impression of one who laughs to keep from crying. So sympathetic a filmmaker is Takita that by film's end, we have fully experienced his characters' sorrow, joy, and emotional catharsis.EndText