A feel-good dramedy about death, Yojiro Takita’s “Departures” would seem to be the first Japanese import in the U.S. in quite some time with a real chance for art-house success, rather than mere fanboy buzz. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course, but “Departures” is a particularly silly, histrionic slab of moviemaking. Its setup would seem to imply classical Japanese formal control — a young man gradually learning the graceful ways of casketing the dead, i.e. sending them off into the afterlife with ceremonial efficiency and elegance. It’s both refreshing and also a bit of a letdown, then, that Takita is less a ikebana-like stylist in search of that most exquisite corpse arrangement then an unrepentant audience-courter, whose every emphatic reaction shot, glossy flashback, goofy montage sequence, and telegraphed plot twist is placed for prime viewer pleasure. At this he’s unquestionably skilled (while watching, even the most jaded will at one or two points probably give themselves over to teary catharsis), but “Departures” suffers from constant ingratiation: it’s a barrage of manipulative plot points clicking into place with dreaded precision.
An early insert shot should give you an idea of the aesthetic register and emotional tenor of the film, and clue you in to whether or not “Departures” will be your cup of tea. Sensible, sensitive protagonist Daigo Kobayashi, a thirtysomething cellist (played by fortysomething but youthful Masahiro Motoki) is informed by his ensemble’s conductor that the orchestra will be disbanding, leaving Daigo not only out of a paying job but also unable to practice his musical passion. To emphasize Daigo’s shock and dismay at the news, Takita suddenly cuts from a long shot of the orchestra to a close-up of Daigo, his head jutting forward and his eyes and mouth popping open in surprise–viewers, interject your own cartoonish “ga-gonk!” sound here. The rest of the film will be similarly broad and glib, both in its depiction of Daigo’s relationship with his grating, childlike wife Mika (Ryoko Hirosue) and his evolution into emotional maturity by way of becoming an undertaker, or more accurately a nokanshi — a job that consists of readying bodies old and young for cremation, along with his aging but sharp mentor Tsutomu Yamazaki (Ikuei Sasaki, from that once-upon-a-time crowd-pleasing but more generically daring import “Tampopo”), in ceremonies in front of the deceased’s loved ones, with ethereal bedside manner and corporeal discreetness — which he keeps a secret from Mika and everyone else he knows.
The social stigma of the work itself provides the film with its major underlying conflict, and because of this, others’ reactions to his work often seem forced. Mika’s eventual response to his newfound career seems unnecessarily harsh, but of course she just needs to be taught and thus further develop one of “Departures”‘ main ideas: that the more intimately we grow accustomed to death itself, the freer we’ll be in our daily lives. It’s an inherently lovely idea, and at times persuasively portrayed (especially in those undeniably tearjerking moments concerning the death of an elderly bathhouse owner and friend of Daigo and Mika’s), but the waterworks are often muddied by screenwriter Kundo Koyama’s contrived plotting (the woeful tale of Daigo’s long-lost father is, of course, not mere back story), as well as Takita’s wild tonal shifts (a handful of scenes come awfully close to slapstick) and indulgent and undisciplined visual flourishes, some of which will seem especially gauche to many viewers — a ridiculous mid-film montage intercutting Daigo casketing, swoonily playing cello solo amidst rolling, lush green hills, and, for some reason, noshing on big loafs of crusty bread and sashimi, all set to the soaring strains of Joe Hisaishi’s inflated score, pushes the film perilously close to camp.
Ultimately, “Departures” disappoints by moving the focus away from its more potentially troubling aspects — can one truly prepare oneself for the end? — and falling back on hoary father-son reconciliation cliches (of course it won an Oscar). The presentation of the delicate nokan ceremonies–though they will undoubtedly be of interest to many Western viewers for their exotic motions–are ultimately in service of little more than burdensome melodrama. With its by-the-numbers screenwriting, “Departures” perfunctorily hits on all the expected points and only vaguely outlines any sort of larger ideas of Japanese social structure — there’s something to be said about contemporary class struggle in this story of a man shunned by friends and family for working in death, but I came away with no greater understanding of what it could be. How different cultures, classes, and individuals deal with the end of life should fascinate, but “Departures” only dulls the senses.
[An indieWIRE review from Reverse Shot.]
[Michael Koresky is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot and the managing editor and staff writer of the Criterion Collection.]