Review by Cassam Looch
IT’S TAKEN a while for this Oscar winning drama from Japan to arrive in the UK, and whilst the subject matter might initially appear morbid and indeed off-putting, if you stick with its gentle pacing you will discover a moving and intelligent film which is well worth investing in.
When Daigo Kobayashi (Masahiro Matoki), a devoted cellist in an orchestra discovers that he no longer has a job, he initially struggles to face the shame of unemployment.
Reluctantly, he decides to move back to his old hometown with his wife Mika (Ryoko Hirosue ) to look for work and start over. He answers a classified ad entitled “Departures” thinking it is an advertisement for a travel agency only to discover that the job is actually for a “Nokanshi” or “encoffineer,” a funeral professional who prepares deceased bodies for burial and entry into the next life.
Initially reluctant to take on the profession and unable to tell his wife what his work entails, Daigo looks for way out while gently easing back into small-town life. But then he becomes fascinated with the care and professionalism of his employer (Tsutomu Yamazaki) and begins to see how important the job is in allowing grieving family members to come to terms with their loss.
Daigo soon accepts his place in the community but things seem to change when his secret is revealed. While his wife and others despise the job, Daigo begins to take a certain pride in his work and begins to perfect the art of “Nokanshi,” acting as a gentle gatekeeper between life and death, between the departed and the family of the departed.
As he is guided through the pitfalls of his working environment, his personal life takes some dramatic and life-changing turns forcing him to face up to the future and the past.
Departures manages to leave you with a sense of life-affirming glee but never cheapens the subject matter in the process. It’s a delightfully sensitive look at a culture and country which has a very different attitude to dealing with death than our own.
The visuals are beautiful even in the most static of environments and only once does it deviate from its hyper-realistic tone when showing us Daigo in slow-motion playing away on his cello… however, on this occasion you feel we the audience and indeed the character are warranted this light relief.
That’s not to say the film is heavy-going or too challenging, it’s just the idea of it might be. Director Yôjirô Takita hasn’t completely forgone his comedic heritage as there is certainly some humour to be found throughout the film, but it’s the sort that will make you smile at the absurdities of life rather than roll in the aisles.
With a superbly nuanced performance from Masahiro Motoki in the lead role, the film lingers long in the memory and will creep up on you when you least expect.
Departures therefore rates as one of the year’s best films, thoroughly invigorating and thoughtfully presented.
UK DVD & Blu-ray Release: May 10, 2010