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Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Departures (Okuribito)

Available from Amazon
My diet of art & entertainment is a lot like my intake of food. I am an avid daily consumer (hence my ever-expanding waistline), but, frankly, most of my meals are pretty forgettable. They serve a pragmatic, minimally-pleasurable function that just keeps the machinery moving.

Still, I fancy that I have a somewhat discerning palate, and, every once in a while, as I forage and feed and view and read, I happen upon a real treat, something that is both delightful and deeply nourishing and that showcases exquisite craftsmanship.

Departures is just such an offering. It's a movie that works on many, many levels. Honestly, I can't recommend it enough. After all, it did win the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 2009 (as well as such august laurels as a Golden Rooster and a Grand Prix des Ameriques.

Departures tells the story of Daigo, a thirty-something cellist in Tokyo who finds himself unemployed when his orchestra suddenly disbands. Confronted with a crushing (and symbolic) debt, he and his cheerfully demure wife, Mika, agree to move back to Daigo's hometown, where he finds quick & lucrative employment after answering an ad in the newspaper. But Daigo soon figures out that his new job isn't what he thought. It's the result of a huge misunderstanding. Or is it?

All of this is shown in flashback after some opening scenes that are stunning in their beauty and import. Two men drive across a snow-covered landscape to arrive at a house where a family waits in mourning. The fascinating ceremony that follows, with its exacting precision and ultimate humaneness, serves as a masterful prelude for the tale to come.

The ceremony of "encoffinment," from the beginning of Departures.
Director Yojiro Takita exhibits a deft touch throughout, though he lingers a bit on some set pieces, perhaps proud of his nicely-arranged compositions. And all of the actors, especially the principals, are outstanding. Tsutomu Yamazaki, as the laconic boss who takes Daigo under his wing, delivers a master class on how to convey so much in the slightest change of expression.

I hesitate to reveal much more about Departures, except to say that, among its many themes, this movie is about how we deal with death, both as a society and as individuals, and about how the end of one life can be a catalyst for change in others. The movie is also about the romance between Daigo & Mika, a romance that continues to evolve and develop even after they've exchanged rings. I could go on about what else this movie is about, for it is one of those films that is exactly as complex and varied and beautiful as life itself.

Of course, like life, this film is far from perfect. It's a bit overlong, and its sentimentality runs thick at times. Also, certain turns of plot are agonizingly telegraphed. But such nitpicking belies the staggering achievement of Departures. It's a movie that moved me.

I urge you to see it.

directed by Yojiro Takita


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