Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Caring for the dearly departed

Last February, the Japanese movie "Departures" shocked many moviegoers when it took home the Oscar for best foreign-language film. "Departures" beat out "The Class" (France) and "Waltz With Bashir" (Israel), both of which were considered better bets.* At the time, few reviewers had seen "Departures," and many observers wondered whether the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences hadn't once again chosen sentiment over substance.Thankfully, that's not the case. At its best, "Departures" has the tender beauty of a labor of love.

This is not to say that I'd have picked "Departures" over either "The Class or "Waltz With Bashir." "The Class" dealt with the problems of urban schools better than any movie I've seen. It took an honest look at how a mostly white faculty coped with an influx of students from diverse ethnic backgrounds. My second choice would have been the animated "Waltz With Bashir," a powerful examination of Israeli guilt over the war in Lebanon.

By comparison, "Departures" is a more conservative movie that wants to extol the restorative powers of tradition. Director Yojiro Takita tells a story that leads us to believe that many people have forgotten the importance of rituals involving the dead. "Departures" suggests that bypassing such rituals devalues the life of the departed.

To make these points, "Takita" focuses on Daigo (Masahiro Motoki), a cellist whose orchestra disbands at the movie's outset. Realizing that his musical talents may be limited, Daigo decides to seek a new profession. In pursuit of this new life, he returns to his backwater hometown with his wife (Ryoko Hirosue).

Thinking he's applying for a job at a local travel agency, Daigo lands employment as an assistant to a man (Tsutomu Yamazaki ) who practices the ancient art of encoffination, preparing bodies for cremation. Yamazaki's character washes and dresses corpses, tasks he performs with great respect and with a ceremonial concern for detail. Apparently, this kind of work does not win much respect for its practitioners. Upset by her husband's declining social status, Daigo's wife returns to the city, leaving her husband to fend for himself.

Initially, Daigo himself is a bit revolted by his new occupation. Takita uses Daigo's reluctance to fuel some unfortunately broad comedy. I agree with those who found this comedic approach to be slightly at odds with what's best about the movie, the careful detailing of the way bodies are handled. I was absorbed watching Daigo and his boss elevate their occupation to the level of art, to see the quiet satisfaction that occurs when a thing is done correctly and with great care.

It should come as no surprise that Daigo finds his purpose in life under the initially gruff tutelage of Yamazaki's character. He not only learns how to handle bodies, but performs a service that bonds him to the community in which he spent his youth.

I found enough sad, lovely moments in "Departures" to offset any reservations. It also made me stop and think about what kinds of work we should value and why.

*The other nominated films were Germany's "The Baeder Meinhof Complex" and Austria's "Revanche." "Departures" is the first movie in Landmark's new calendar series. It opens Friday for a one-week at the Chez Artiste.

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