Two handsomely dressed men, one old, the other young, drive through curtains of falling snow. They’re en route to a funeral, whereupon their services as nokanshi will be utilized by the family of a dead girl. The old man is stoic, while the younger one is stricken, his taut face displaying unveiled terror; he might as well be storming Omaha Beach, not dressing up a corpse.
Yojiro Takita’s “Departures,” which won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film last February, pulls no punches in illustrating the work of a nokanshi, the preparer of dead bodies. Americans might be comfortable with leaving the task of corpse preparation in an undertaker’s basement, but in Japan, the process gets a large familial audience. The graceful cleansing of the face, application of makeup and shrouding by sheet are laid bare for all to see. It is a strangely beautiful sight.
Still, it is clear that Daigo (Masahiro Motoki), the youthful protagonist of “Departures,” is unnerved by his newfound profession. A former cellist who was left unemployed after the termination of his Tokyo orchestra, Daigo returns to his hometown in the northern countryside accompanied by his wife Mika (Ryoko Hirosue). Looking for work, he notices a promising job listing in the paper for what he believes is a travel agency.
In a way, Daigo’s first impression of the job is accurate. However, it soon becomes clear after his interview with Ikuei (Tsutomu Yamazaki), the aging proprietor of a funeral home, that Daigo will not be sending clients to Oahu. Within days of accepting the position, Daigo finds himself with Ikuei in a roach infested apartment, removing the rotting body of an elderly woman. Understandably, he does not tell Mika how his day went.
The looming question in the heart of “Departures” is how somebody who makes a living by handling corpses finds solace and worth in their occupation. While the process might bring peace to the families of the deceased, others, including some of Daigo’s childhood acquaintances and his own wife, view it with utter repugnance.
Takita takes great pains in using Daigo’s troubling profession as a means of revealing the poor man’s painful history, which includes the death of his mother at a young age, and a father who walked out on the family even earlier. While these revelations give us a more intimate glimpse at Daigo’s vulnerabilities, they push the movie into an uncomfortably long running time, and eventually start to feel glaringly plotted.
What makes “Departures” more enjoyable is its lurking sense of humor, which rears its head in unexpected ways. Take, for instance, a scene where Ikuei enlists the newly hired Daigo to play a corpse in a how-to video for aspiring nokanshi. Bristling under Ikuei’s not-so-carefully applied straight razor, Daigo appears as hysterically helpless as Jeff Daniels did while full of laxatives in “Dumb & Dumber,” and the film resists falling to the suicidal dearth of self-seriousness.
It certainly helps that Motoki is terrifically convincing as Daigo. Spritely in appearance and output, Motoki’s face holds nothing back in communicating anxieties, frustrations, hopes and pleasures. His performance is an excellent counterpart to Yamazaki’s warm but vacant Ikuei, who seems to have been whittled down to his current form by the same sights and processes that nauseate Daigo.
Watching Daigo’s passage into acceptance as a nokanshi is both painful and intriguing. It’s tempting, perhaps naturally, to hope that Daigo might find a means of overcoming his situation and moving onward professionally. The more challenging and interesting idea is that Daigo may be proud of his work as a nokanshi, despite the societal taboos attached to it.
Unfortunately, Takita himself seems to be thinking along the lines of the former, as suggested by several labored montages of Daigo practicing cello against the mountains to Joe Hisashi’s lovely score. “Departures” builds itself up for a climactic shift, yet that shift never quite comes. The film’s ending is satisfying for its lack of a predictable cop-out, yet somehow ends up feeling confused in its resolution.
American audiences will likely be moved by the thin personal stories of “Departures,” as well as its unyielding look into a little known aspect of Japanese culture. Takita’s film is certainly a curious, disarming picture, but it also is overstuffed with undeveloped ideas, even with its excessive length of two hours and 10 minutes. It’s as interesting as any museum exhibit and funny at times, but one cannot help but come out feeling as cold and bloated as, well, a corpse.