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Movie review: Departures -- 5 out of 5 stars
Awards watchers predicted the animated Israeli docudrama Waltz with Bashir would take home the best foreign language film Oscar this year. But the little-seen Japanese Departures pulled off the upset. When you see the poetic, funny and life-affirming film, you'll have to say that this time the Academy got it right.
It's about a cellist (Masahiro Motoki) whose Tokyo orchestra loses its funding.
"I'm not good enough to get another gig," he tells his eternally upbeat web-designer bride (Ryoko Hirosue). So he sells his fancy cello and they move back to his provincial hometown.
A help-wanted ad solicits someone who wants to work "with departures," so Daigo assumes it's at a travel agency. It's only when he shows up that he realizes the business of this business is "casketing," preparing bodies, "sending the dead on their way."
Departures is a loving tribute to the Japanese way of death. Bodies are cremated, but before they are, a "departures" specialist comes to the home, discretely cleans the body ("Wash away the weariness and pain of this world") and changes the clothes of the deceased, poses the body and puts it into the wooden coffin that will be burned. This is done in full view of the family, since families used to do this sort of thing themselves.
But Daigo's new job is "unclean," so unacceptable that he dare not tell his wife about it. He visits the bathhouse each night after work to scrub off "the smell of death." The boss, the aged Mr. Sazaki, played by the legendary Tsutomu Yamazaki (Tampopo) is there to ease not just a body's way into the afterlife, but Daigo's transition into his new career.
Departures isn't all weeping families. Sazaki is the straight man, able to dignify the indignities presented by discovering during cleansing, for instance, that a suicidal young woman isn't a woman.
It's all very Japanese and quite sweet, a Far Eastern Sunshine Cleaning with somber ritual sprinkled with moments of embarrassment. The script (by Iron Chef vet Kundo Koyama) and genteel direction (Yojiro Takita) complement performances that are both compassionate and deadpan.
Departures, in Japanese with English subtitles, is an Oscar winner that shows us a place where death and the dead are treated with a respect the rest of the world should envy.