The premise of Departures, this year’s Oscar winner for Best Foreign-Language Film, is unintentionally relevant in light of the recent global economic meltdown and consequent occupational erosion. A recently unemployed cellist moves back to his rural hometown, young wife in tow, and stumbles into a job as an apprentice nokanshi—one who prepares the dead for cremation by washing and dressing them in the presence of the bereaved. This job unsettles his conservative, tradition-minded wife and friends, but he perseveres and finds meaning and hope in his work. The protagonist’s self-actualization might have had some resonance, but Departures fails to engage either as a sincere melodrama or an examination of death’s cultural position in Japanese society.
Apparently a project initiated by the 44-year-old lead actor Masahiro Motoki (originally a J-pop idol, and still known in fan circles by the diminutive “Mokkun”) and helmed by the journeyman director Yojiro Takita (beginning in “pink” films but moving in the Nineties to mainstream genre fare, including recent swordplay and fantasy films When the Last Sword Is Drawn and Onmyoji: The Yin Yang Master), Departures is written by a co-creator of the Food Network import staple Iron Chef, which should temper any expectations of emotional subtlety.
Playing Daigo, a yuppie uniformed in carefully tousled faux-hawk, scarf, and fitted shirt, Motoki strains credibility at every moment. He was effective as a pretentious doctor and his doppelganger in cult auteur Shinya Tsukamoto’s macabre Edogawa Rampo adaptation Gemini (1999), but his rubber-faced overacting in Departures (check out his double-take when the orchestra is dissolved, which you can also see in the trailer) is only outdone by Ryoko Hirosue as Motoki’s “web designer” wife, who apparently exists to cook and clean for her husband, provide some narratively mandated resistance to his new job, and then be impregnated, which spurs the couple’s de rigueur reconciliation and her validation of his career. This sort of regressive character—oppressively cheerful and completely lacking in interiority—is in keeping with the film’s transparent, predictable plotting. Meanwhile, it’s nice to see Tsutomu Yamazaki, a regular from Juzo Itami’s satires (including The Funeral, which tackles similar subject matter), as Motoki’s gruff mentor and Kazuko Yoshiyuki (from Nagisa Oshima’s Empire of Passion) as an elderly bathhouse owner, but these veteran supporting actors can’t overcome the blandness of the screenplay or compensate for Motoki’s hammy lead performance.
Click here to read the rest of Tyson Kubota’s review of Departures.
And earlier: Michael Koresky on Departures at indieWIRE.