The stately Japanese movie Departures comes into theaters trailing some justified ill will for having trounced the critical favorite, Israel's Waltz With Bashir, for Best Foreign Film at last year's Academy Awards. It's not hard to fathom what academy voters, who skew mature, saw in Departures, an earnest appeal for renewed respect toward the old and the dead. But the movie, about a depressive young cellist who discovers his vocation and his better self practicing the ancient art of corpse beautification in a provincial funeral parlor, was also a smash hit with moviegoers of all ages in Japan, and not just because its director, Yojirô Takita, is best-known for making soft-core porn. The movie carried off ten local Academy Awards, a coup previously scored by the 1996 comedy Shall We Dance?
In form and substance, the two films couldn't be more different — but taken together, they make fascinating bookends for the ambivalence of a society blithely dumping its traditionally tight work and family structures as it races into post-modernity. If Shall We Dance?, in which a shy young bureaucrat liberates his inner foxtrotter on the ballroom dance floor, extended an impish invitation to Japan's tightly wound male corporate culture to unravel a bit, Departures gently nudges Japan's alienated new generation to find meaning in the performance of age-old domestic rituals.
Masahiro Motoki, a former boy-band singer who appeared in Shall We Dance?, stars here as Daigo, a sad-sack musician in his 30s who, after his symphony orchestra is dismantled for lack of audience interest, returns with his reluctant but pliant wife, Mika (Ryoko Hirosue), to live in his dead mother's house in a beautiful Japanese backwater. Responding to a newspaper ad inviting candidates for a job in "departures," Daigo concludes he's going into the travel business, only to find himself being trained by a monosyllabic undertaker (excellent veteran actor Tsutomu Yamazaki) to spruce up dead bodies in preparation for their journey to the hereafter.
Initially disgusted by his pungent "clients" and by the stigma of working with the "unclean" dead, Daigo does a lousy job, which Takita then turns into a digression into the broad physical comedy for which Japan is famous — jarringly at odds with the movie's otherwise gentle tone. In time, though, this remote, subliminally angry young man finds himself strangely moved by the stories of the dead and by the gratitude of the grieving relatives who gather to watch him spiff up their loved ones. Inevitably, Daigo has his own family troubles with an absentee father whom he's never forgiven and the pining mother he had jettisoned the moment he could head for the big city. Enlightenment and self-healing loom visibly on the horizon, but at just over two hours, Departures takes its sweet time setting them up, with much foreshadowing and flashbacks to the souring of Daigo's childhood.
Though there's no compelling reason why this minor piece should have triumphed over the far more groundbreaking Waltz With Bashir, Takita's unpretentious classicism and his candid delight in nature work their modest way into our sympathies, along with the plaintive cello pieces by composer Joe Hisaishi, who scored such Miyazaki treasures as My Neighbor Totoro and Howl's Moving Castle. Takita springs enough bracing little surprises to save the movie from rank sentimentality — the old undertaker, who claims to hate himself for scarfing down an enormous meat meal after every job well done, is the movie's liveliest character.
Departures is built for simplicity, and if nothing else, the appeal to decency and integrity of this sweetly old-fashioned tale makes it a must for Bernie Madoff's prison Netflix queue. Amid the culture of cheating and heedless one-upmanship that has brought the globe to its knees, it's a lovely thing to meet a movie that refuses to divorce what it means to be a professional from what it means to be a mensch.
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.