Film review – Departures (2008)

15 October 2009
Daigo Kobayashi (Masahiro Motoki) and  Ikuei Sasaki (Tsutomu Yamazaki)

Daigo Kobayashi (Masahiro Motoki) and Ikuei Sasaki (Tsutomu Yamazaki)

Daigo Kobayashi (Masahiro Motoki) leaves Tokyo, after reluctantly abandoned his dream of becoming a great cellist, to return with his wife to his hometown in regional Japan. While applying for what he thinks is a job in a travel agency Daigo finds himself recruited as an encoffineer; a job that requires him to publicly perform the ceremonial washing, dressing and placing of the deceased into their coffin. Despite the social taboos Daigo encounters about having a job that requires such intimacy with dead bodies (he even initially keeps his work secret from his wife) he soon discovers that he has an aptitude and affinity for the job.

The 2009 Academy Award for the Best Foreign Language Film of the Year went to Departures and it is easy to understand why it is a film that so many people have embraced. The scenes depicting Daigo and his boss/mentor Ikuei Sasaki (Tsutomu Yamazaki) are astonishingly beautiful and gentle. Sasaki tells Daigo that their job is one that requires calmness, precision and affection and these adjectives very accurately describe much of the film itself.

still_9206_scaledUnfortunately the wonderful subtly and sensitivity displayed during the encoffination scenes are badly undercut by some very saccharine scenes elsewhere in the film. The excessively emotive music and the very corny montage of Daigo playing the cello on windswept hills are particular elements that make parts of Departures resemble something made for the Hallmark Channel. Considering just how genuinely moving so much of Departures is, these blatantly tear-jerking elements create a bewildering stylistic clash. You would have to have a heart of stone to not be moved to tears during key sequences in this film so it is such a shame that at other points you are reluctantly very much aware that the film is calculated to evoke such a response from you. Instead of fully enjoying the surge of emotion throughout the entire film you do feel somewhat manipulated at times. Departures is still a superior drama that should be experienced in a cinema but if the filmmakers had exercised a little restraint in some key areas then it could have been a masterpiece.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2009

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