Departures, you know that little Japanese flick that stunned the world by winning best foreign film at the Oscars this year, finally arrives in theaters this week. I have yet to see the two heavyweights of world cinema that it brought down to win the prize ("The Class" and "Waltz with Bashir") so I can’t compare it to those but this certainly doesn’t feel like award-winning stuff here. The plot involves some dude named Daigo during his fall from grace and inevitable comeback. To start off with he loses his job as a concert cellist right after investing in a cello that ran him 18 million Yen (that’s $189,000 to those of you who happen to be less economically savvy than me). So he and his most perfect wife ever move back to the sticks where they can live for free in his dead mother’s house. Soon he finds himself driven by fate into the funeral business where he eventually thrives. Yes, I agree it is all very "Six Feet Under"-ish.
There is a lot I really enjoyed about this film. The sweet, loving relationship between Daigo and his wife Mika that eventually sours is handled beautifully. The dynamic early on is fun to watch as he bumbles around pretending to be a tough guy and pretending to have a job that doesn’t involve dead bodies. Slowly you can see discontent seep into her world. He had promised her that they would travel the world together but instead here she is, stranded in his mother’s house in rural Japan. Her growing sadness is shown in quiet, subtle ways such as letting the camera linger on her for extended periods of time so that we can see the tiny changes in her face. There is also a lot of physical comedy here that actually sort of works. Masahiro Motoki, who plays Diago, is asked to play a Ben Stiller type role where all he wants is to please everybody but all he gets is endless bad luck. During his initiation into the biz he shows us how much of a tough guy he isn’t. We watch as he coughs, retches and barfs his way through one job after another. He soon finds himself at home in his job but unfortunately for him societal influences soon threaten his happiness. Apparently in Japan his line of work is severely discriminated against. Neighbors (as neighbors will do) start to gossip about him, and when Mika finds out what he really does for a living she up and leaves him forcing him to choose between the woman he loves and the job he loves.
This conflict, along with the idea that life and love should be treasured because they are fragile are great assets. I just don’t understand why this film had to take itself so seriously. Something this somber and stoic, especially coming from a famed porn director, just begs for you to try and score jokes off of it. Director Yojiro Takita tries to beat the audience to the punch by inserting his own brand of humor (watch as the opening scene takes an unexpected turn toward the blue), but really he seems to be under the impression that he is making high art. One scene in particular stood out. It is an extra long montage in which Diago playing the cello with beautiful mountain scenery in the background is cut with him living his life without his wife. Clearly the aim was poetry, but I would argue that he came up rather short. I was liking this film until about the 90 minute mark, at which point I got the feeling that it was just sitting up there squatting on my movie screen. A shorter, lighter version I would have liked but as it is I’m stuck giving it my mildest no vote.
Starring: Masahiro Motoki, Ryoko Hirosue, Tsutumo Yamazaki, Kimiko Yo, Kazuko Yoshiyuki, Takashi Sasano
Director: Yojiro Takita
Runtime: 135 Minutes
Distributor: Regent Releasing