Saturday, July 10, 2010

Maggie 2010: A Round of Resounding Recs, Part II

#87. Departures

When Daigo Kobayashi's orchestra is dissolved, the devoted cellist (Masahiro Motoki) moves back to his old hometown with wife in tow, to find work and make a fresh start of life. Answering a help wanted ad for an agency working with "Departures," Daigo discovers the position is actually for an "encoffiner," someone who prepares the dead in such a way that gives them back the best character of their lives before cremation. By accepting this position, Daigo puts himself on a path of self-exploration that yields sweet, comic, and nourishing insights into the nature both of death and of life.

This is Departures in a nutshell, though there are some tremendous nuances that merit mention for the role they play in keeping the magic of this piece alive. First, it is important to understand that funeral professionals still endure the implicit social stratification that, in Japanese culture, once held that touching the dead was a matter of severe uncleanliness, making the professional himself unclean and reviled. So when Daigo moves from respected cellist to Nokanshi, he suffers an immediate social loss and his wife leaves him.

Why, then, does Daigo pursue this position, under the gentle tutelage of expert Nokanshi Ikuei Sasaki (Tsutomu Yamazaki), in the face of so much social embarrassment and loss of prestige? The answer lies cleverly, subtly, in the fact that loss surrounds us all, in many forms. For Daigo, the greatest loss in his life to date has been that of his father, who left when he was just a small child, and whose identity remains blurred from all of Daigo's recollection. Yojiro Takita proves himself to be an expert director in the way he plays on viewers' hopes and expectations for a reunion of father and son throughout this piece, with every new older male face young Daigo is exposed to causing viewers to feel they've cracked the mystery prematurely.

Would that life were so simple. Viewers may take heart, at least, in the fact that they aren't the only ones to make such immediate prejudgments of import: As Daigo observes Ikuei perform his duties, he bears witness to the tremendous transformation that overcomes even the most revolted Japanese citizens when faced both with the spectre of death, and the infinite kindness with which their loved ones are by Ikuei laid to rest. And yes, there is comedy in this--sweet, life-affirming comedy. In light, deft strokes director Takita has given us a tale of ultimate compassion and understanding that doesn't first weigh upon the heart. I especially recommend Departures to viewers who've never before engaged contemporary Japanese cinema, but who are--you'll pardon the pun--dying to take the plunge.

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