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Japan’s Oscar-winner in 2009’s Best Foreign Language Film category, Departures, offers the barest hint of broadness in its main character, Daigo (Masahiro Motoki), a young, married cellist who reacts with bugged eyes and a dropped jaw when he learns that the orchestra he just joined is being dissolved. In debt because of the top-of-the-line instrument he purchased and fearing that he’s not talented enough to land another job in music, Daigo decides to sell his cello and move from Tokyo back to his small hometown to live in his childhood home.
He answers an ad for a position related to “departures,” thinking it’s at a travel agency, and the cartoonish expression returns when he learns what the work actually entails: Daigo would be the assistant to the local nokanshu, a mystical, virtuosic undertaker. The boss, Sasaki (Tsutomu Yamazaki), nonchalantly says that the ad should have read “departed.” When Daigo questions whether someone who’s never seen a dead body could do the job, a coworker cheerfully replies, “You’ll get used to it!” And whenever Sasaki throws him into the deep end without explanation—having him, for example, pose as a corpse for an instructional video—he answers Daigo’s horrified looks with a muted, “It’s fine.”
Not until the end of the film is anything really fine, as the job carries a serious stigma and Daigo therefore lies to his usually supportive wife, Mika (Ryoko Hirosue), scrubbing himself in a public bathhouse after work, self-conscious of both the odor and nature of his duties. But Departures is lovely, wrenching, and graceful throughout. Directed by Yojiro Takita from a debut script from Kundo Koyama, the film naturally involves a lot of death, both from the nokanshu’s clients as well as passings in Daigo’s personal life: He feels guilty about not having taken better care of his deceased mother; he aches for the parents, children, and friends of the dead whose bodies he bathes, makes up, and places in coffins.)
But on a deeper level, Departures is about the circle of life, family relationships, pride in one’s purpose, and all the messiness those things can bring. Daigo can’t let go of his bitterness toward his father, who abandoned him and his mother when he was a child. Tragedy, eventually, will put things in perspective—but it’s more wistful than heavy-handed and never feels contrived, even if you might see a few developments coming. The highlight of the film is, improbably, the mortuary process itself: Sasaki and Daigo move with beautiful fluidity and make great ceremony out of every step, from slipping the deceased’s clothes off under a blanket to carefully brushing hair and folding hands—all with the light touch of a magician. The prominent message of Departures is that tending to the dead is not an embarrassment but an honor, and that likewise cultivating one’s relationships while alive is more important than dashed dreams or other pedestrian bumps in the road.