It is hard to believe that in the great history of Japanese cinema only one film has ever won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. It was not one Kurosawa’s epic masterpieces like Ran or Seven Samurai, or other Japanese favorites like Tokyo Story or Tanpopo (the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film was not established until 1956, after many of the most famous Japanese films were released). It was awarded to a relatively unknown film in 2009, a film called Departures (おくりびと) directed by Yojiro Takita.
It is a beautiful story of life and death and ones man’s journey to piece all the broken parts of his life together, while maintaining loyalty to his newfound and odd profession.
It begins with a handsome man named Daigo Kobayashi. He has just lost his job as a professional cellist after his orchestra went bankrupt. After revealing to his wife the loss of his job, and his recent secret cello purchase, they have no choice but to move back to his childhood home, where his just deceased mother had lived two years before. Without his cello and a home of his own, he feels lost having to begin life again where it all started years before.
While looking though the newspaper for a job, he stumbles upon a promising opportunity which he thinks is a job for a travel agency. After a brief interview with a gruff old man, he is given the job immediately, without really understanding what the job entails. He soon discovers his job is like a travel agency but it caters to a different kind of travel – preparing dead bodies for their trip into the afterlife.
Daigo learns the art of preparing a departed body in a ritualistic manner for the afterlife. The body is cleaned and washed in view of kneeling mourners, preserving the deceased person’s privacy with carefully arranged sheets. Then the corpse is washed and dressed, made-up and placed in a simple wooden coffin. Daigo’s first lessons prove to be difficult, but his boss never lets him even consider quitting.
Daigo does not tell the details of his work to his wife because it is not a well-respected occupation. In spite of this, they become closer than ever, happily living in his childhood home until the day his wife discovers Daigo’s job details. Although she loves him dearly, she simply cannot be with someone who touches dead people for a living. She leaves him after he refuses to leave his new profession.
Daigo must win back his wife’s affection but at the same time stay loyal to his new profession, which he has come to respect and love. The story unravels into a perfectly performed and well-written, comedy-drama that appeals in an odd, emotional way. The viewer cannot help but become connected to the characters and their emotions.
The music of film is very beautiful and really lends itself to the mood of the story. The cello music played by Daigo, both in his outside fantasy world, and his childhood bedroom, fits the feeling and emotions conveyed in the story. The acting is superb and the actors really let you feel comfortable with their personalities, the viewer sometimes forgetting they are watching a film because of their authenticity. The cinematography is very clean and it does a beautiful job telling the story without being too intrusive.
It may have taken almost 60 years for a Japanese movie to win the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, but Departures is a worthy recipient. It is a must see film for any cinema fan or Japanese cultural enthusiast. It delivers a peek into the very rare and interesting afterlife preparation rituals of Japan, while at the same time telling an amazing and unforgettable story of love and life.