Winner of the Best Foreign Language Film at last year's Oscars this off-shore indie sleeper is an achingly beautiful portrait of tender reconciliation from a culture where openly venting one's emotions is just not something that you do. Ten years in the making this gentle, drifting drama – the brainchild of it's leading man Masahiro Motoki – dares to question the value of its nation's ultra-conservative social approach and the chokehold people are expected to maintain on their feelings for the sake of appearance. Simply put, life's too short.

Crushed�by the disbanding of his Tokyo opera and indebted over his expensive new instrument, disillusioned cellist Diago (Motoki) returns to his provincial home town with his adoring wife Mika (Hirosue) to live in the house his mother left him. Besieged by bad memories Diago finds himself haunted by gradually dissolving memories of the father who skipped out when he was still an infant. Broke and desperate to redefine himself he mistakes an advert for the 'departures' associate for a travel agent and quickly winds up the prot�g� for an eccentric old man who specializes in the ritualized washing and dressing of a body during a funeral in preparation for the afterlife. Plagued by a sense of shame (it's taboo work to say the least) Diago sets about hiding his new job from Mika, but as time passes he realizes there is great value in this very special and very delicate ritual.
What makes Departures so special is the perfect pitch of every moment. Somber subject matter handled with a deftness of touch by veteran director Yojiro Takita and peppered with light moments of what could pass for comedy (witness Diago's reaction when he discovers a 'surprise' beneath one client's robe). With so much of the cultural norms of Japanese society centered on posture and body language, Motoki's performance is a joy to behold with much lightness derived from his reactions to the tasks at hand, and other people's reactions to his own. Affable, but bungling he has a little bit of the Hugh Grant's about him with his desire to please masking a reservoir of self-doubt and insecurity. Contrast this Hirosue as his impossibly chipper wife and the sense of empathy is almost unbearable as how could anyone not give this woman everything she wants? Takita clearly doesn't buy into the idea that silence equates to stability, and food is a constant metaphor throughout the movie, with everyone continuingly eating and physical sustenance serving as a substitute for our undernourished emotional well-being.�
But it's in the funerals and the performance of the ritual that Departures truly soars. And it is a performance, with form of the utmost importance during the bathing and dressing, giving the whole affair a rhythmic, quality almost akin to a sit down ballet. At two hours plus it's leisurely paced to be sure, but the deliberately languid time spent dwelling in the background at the various funerals is well spent with Takita consciously planting us in the midst of that most uncomfortable of social gatherings and leaving us there to ponder mortality as we listen in on the relief, the despair, the bitterness, and the regret that inevitably permeates. As one woman wails over the corpse of her daughter, sobbing over how the make-up doesn't look right, her husband's commiseration extends only so far as to jibe "What difference does it make now? you never paid her any mind while she was alive!" – devastating. But always at the very end is gratitude as the families regard Diago with great affection, safe in the knowledge that someone cared enough to come to their home perform this blessing with dignity and respect, and that, one day, someone will care enough for them, too.��
DVD Extra Features
A ten minute Q&A with director Yojiro Takita during which he outlines the genesis of this project, it's subsequent development, and some important thematic elements. Brief, but enlightening.
Starring: Masahiro Motoki, Ryoko Hirosue, Tsutumo Yamazaki, Kimiko Yo, Kazuko Yoshiyuki, Takashi Sasano
Director: Yojiro Takita
Runtime: 135 Minutes
Distributor: Regent Releasing
Rating: PG-13

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