Departures: Japan's Oscar Winner


Japan's Oscar Winner


In “Departures,” Yojiro Takita's eccentric, movingly funny, and lushly scored black comedy, a failed cellist decides to connect with his inner undertaker, his rural hometown and his newly deceased father. Takita offers a serio-comic look at life, death and forgiveness through the work of a man who accidentally becomes a “nokanshi,” a man who ceremonially prepares corpses for burial.

Eiren, the Motion Picture Producers' Association of Japan, has selected drama “Departures” as Japan's official contender for the Foreign Language Oscar.  The movie is on a short list of nine contenders for this prestigious and influential award, of which five will be nominated on January 22, 2009.  Meanwhile, “Departures” has won the audience award at the 2009 Palm Springs Film Fest, which speaks well of its potential commercial appeal outside Japan and other Asian countries.

Earlier, the picture was awarded the Grand Prix des Ameriques at this year's Montreal World Film Festival and has impressed Japanese critics following its September 13 opening by the Shochiku distribution company.

Masahiro Motoki stars as Daigo, an out-of-work cellist who, crushed at the breakup of his Tokyo orchestra, retreats to his picturesque northern Japan hometown to find his true calling.  His first bold, life-changing move is to become a “nokanshi,” a professional who ritually washes and clothes bodies prior to the funeral.  While this unusual change of career gives Daigo a new purpose in life, it creates conflict with his young wife Mika (Ryoko Hirosue) and others around him.

Some context is in order.  In Japan, the job of “nokanshi” is an unusual one, as working closely with death has the connotation of high regard.  Here is what the director said about his goal: “I wanted to make a film from the perspective of a person who deals with something so universal and yet is looked down upon, and even discriminated against. Other than doctors, very few people have much to do with dead bodies, and it's not the kind of occupation or subject that often appears in movies. There's always a kind of dialogue between people who have passed away and the families that survive them, and that's part of what I wanted to focus on.”

“Departures” was shot on location in Yamagata prefecture from March to May during the changing of the seasons.   It's noteworthy that most of Japan's rural regional areas are in decline, with people moving away and old ways being lost.  But director Takita finds warmth and humanity despite the surrounding decay.  

Arguably, the film's most poignant scenes revolve around food, emphasizing the direct relationship between eating, living, and other kinds of desires.
Though dealing with death and other dark themes, the overall approach is upbeat and the tone eccentric, based on the director's philosophy that “most humans are comical by nature.”



Director: Yojiro Takita
Producer: Toshiaki Nakasawa, Toshihisa Watai
Editor: Akimasa Kawashima
Screenwriter: Kundo Koyama
Cinematographer: Takeshi Hamada
Music: Joe Hisaishi
Running Time: 131 Minutes

Cast: Masahiro Motoki Tsutomu Yamazaki, Ryoko Hirosue, Kimiko Yo, Takashi Sasano

Takita's Filmography:

The Battery (2007)

Ashura (2005)

When the Last Sword is Drawn (2003)

The Secret (1999)