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Tsutomu Yamazaki (left) and Masahiro Motoki (right) in the award-winning Departures
Japanese: おくりびと
Year: 2008  

Yojiro Takita


Kundo Koyama (Based on the book Coffinman by Shinmon Aoki)


Masahiro Motoki, Ryoko Hirosue, Tsutomu Yamazaki, Kimiko Yo, Kazuko Yoshiyuki, Takashi Sasano, Tetta Sugimoto, Tooru Minegishi, Tatsuo Yamada, Yukiko Tachibana

  The Skinny: Even though it doesn't meet the astronomical expectations it has earned by now, Departures is a touching and well-calculated commercial film that is deserving of its commercial success.
Kevin Ma:

Yojiro Takita's award-winning Departures can't possibly come with higher expectations. It's been on a roll of award wins since last September, including a near-sweep at the Japan Academy Awards and the first Best Foreign Language Film Oscar for Japan since 1955. Even though it doesn't quite meet the buzz, Departures is a touching film that rightfully earned all the sniffles heard during the screening I attended, and it's certainly deserving of its commercial success in Japan thus far. Despite the arthouse cred the film will earn in Western cinemas for its “foreign film” label, the success of Departures is that it takes grim subject matter and gives it a commercial sensibility - and it does it so well that it pleasantly surprised its local audience. There's nothing wrong with that at all.

Another key to the film's success is that it explores a subject that may even be exotic to Japanese audiences. It's not every day that a film about ceremonies to beautify corpses is made for Japanese commercial cinema, and not every filmmaker is willing to make comedy out of it. That's exactly what writer Kundo Koyama and director Takita do in the opening scene. Daigo (Masahiro Motoki) has already been working as an “encoffinist” for a few months under his boss Sasaki (scene stealer Tsutomu Yamazaki) when they encounter an odd extra body part on their latest seemingly female client.

After all the awkwardness of asking the parents about which type of makeup they prefer on their daughter/son, the film flashes back to several months earlier. Daigo is a professional cellist in Tokyo when his orchestra is suddenly disbanded. With the need to pay off his 18 million yen cello, Daigo moves back to his hometown with his wife Mika (Ryoko Hirosue) to start a new life. Seeing a promising job in the classified ads with an agency that deals with “departures”, Daigo applies, thinking that the firm is a travel agency.

However, Daigo soon realizes that “departures” refers to departing the human world, and the firm he has applied to deals with performing beautification ceremonies on dead bodies in front of the dead's family members. Despite initial obstacles such as rotting bodies and the aforementioned additional body part, Daigo eventually comes to peace with his job and earns plenty of money from it. However, the rest of the world, including his wife and childhood friend, ends up shunning him when they find out about his new profession.

Of course, Departures being the classical commercial film that it is, these people will eventually come around and come to appreciate Daigo's chosen profession. In this case, predictability is not exactly a criticism, since the film does manage to make encoffining seem like a perfectly honorable profession from the first minute in. Takita directs the encoffining scenes with a simplistic beauty that - paired with Joe Hisaishi's stirring score - will certainly make you wish that Daigo and Sasaki will be the men taking care of your own loved ones when they depart. Takita and Koyama find a perfect balance between showing the sadness of death and the comedy that stems from the taboos of taking care of the dead, keeping the first two-thirds of the film going at a brisk pace that entertains without undermining its central subject.

However, things go slightly awry at the 90-minute mark, when the filmmakers break out not one, but two tear-inducing twists that bring the story back to Daigo's personal life. While these moments, particularly the first twist, do effectively get the tears flowing, Takita tries too hard to create emotional resonance with them. As a result, the first twist is stretched to such a length that the film's final twist feels rushed and never quite brings everything it's set up to a satisfying end. While these twists work in concept, they arrive at such a point that one can easily picture Koyama carefully calculating the exact moment these twists have to appear in order to induce the maximum amount of tears out of his audience. Those emotionally involved from the beginning of the film will likely ignore the contrivances, but the abrupt ending is bound to leave some dissatisfied.

This imperfection is particularly unfortunate, since Takita and Koyama have crafted two-thirds of a film that could've easily placed Departures as one of the best commercial Japanese films of the decade (despite other minor flaws, such as strange acting choices in Motoki's award-winning performance). As problematic the third act is in its current form, it's also the third act that will leave the biggest impression on the general audience. One of Departures' major strengths is its ability to induce the right emotions from the audience at every single moment, and it does so without even trying all that hard. There's no doubt that the film was made for the mass audiences, and it never tries to hide that with cutting-edge visuals or pretentious writing. No one should expect anything in Departures that will change the course of Japanese cinema, though the current wave of critical acclaim can understandably lead to such astronomical expectations. It would be wise to lower these expectations before watching the film, as that could make it just as pleasantly surprising as it was all the way back in September 2008, before all the madness began. (Kevin Ma, 2009)


DVD (Hong Kong)
Region 3 NTSC
CN Entertainment
2-Disc Set
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Japanese Language Track
Dolby Digital 5.1
Removable English and Chinese Subtitles
Various Extras
*Also Available on Blu-ray Disc

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image credit: Copyright ©2002-2017 Ross Chen