Art In Death

'Departures' *** (3 Stars)

Director Yojiro Takita Infuses Humor And Poignancy Into A Tale Of An Out-of-work Musician Turned Undertaker

August 07, 2009|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,

The fascination, humor and poignancy of "Departures," this year's winner of the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, rests in the Japanese ceremony of preparing bodies for their caskets. The film is in some ways an elegant Asian cousin to that touching American comedy-drama, "Sunshine Cleaning." The hero, Daigo (Masahiro Motoki), a symphony cellist, takes his wife, Mika (Ryoko Hirosue) to his provincial hometown after his Tokyo orchestra goes under. They are living in the coffeehouse/home his runaway father left to his mother (now deceased) when Daigo falls into the job of "casketer."

As Amy Adams' character did in "Sunshine Cleaning," Daigo finds new worth and dignity - and achieves emotional completeness - as he learns the nuances of a profession others shun as unclean or abhorrent. Adams' character put herself in charge of cleaning up sometimes grisly death-sites. Daigo, under the tutelage of master casketer Ikuei (Tsutomu Yamazaki), learns to wash and re-dress a corpse from head to toe and restore its beauty or personality.

The ritual proves breathtaking in its precision and sensitivity. The casketer makes his respect concrete in the way he protects bodies from indignity and forges a final connection between the dead and the families who observe his meticulous process.

Without embalming them, the director, Yojiro Takita, brings a similar esteem to his characters. The surfaces of individual episodes range from farce to tragedy, but underneath each lies the same instinctive regard for human foibles. And when it comes to his hero, director Takita neither makes too much of Daigo nor too little of him. The movie doesn't pretend that its protagonist will become the artist as a casketer that he could never be as a cellist. Yet an artist's sensibility is part of what enables him to appreciate casketing as a life-and-death-enhancing profession.

At a low point, Daigo wonders whether his fate has been demanding punishment for the way he neglected his mother in her waning years. (He is surprised when his wife thinks his mother was still holding a torch for his father when she died.)

Happily, the relationship of Daigo to Ikuei isn't that of son to surrogate parent, but of apprentice to artisan. What makes this movie special is its unsentimental depiction of the values handed down when a teacher bequeaths his craft to a student.

Real parental feelings emerge in a powerhouse climax that ties up, too neatly, all the loose relationships in Daigo's life. But even when the form of "Departures" is contrived, the feelings it contains are genuine. The ending, which involves a rock, would wring tears from a stone.

MPAA rating: PG-13 (for adult themes, including death)

Running time: 2:10

Starring: Masahiro Motoki (Daigo), Tsutomu Yamazaki (Ikuei) and Ryoko Hirosue (Mika).

A Regent Releasing release.

Directed by Yojiro Takita.

In Japanese with English subtitles.

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