- The Washington Times - Friday, June 19, 2009

It caused something of a stir when “Departures” won this year’s Oscar for foreign-language film. The contest had seemed to be between two films that explored tough — and very relevant — political and social issues, Israel’s “Waltz With Bashir” and France’s “The Class.” Even many film buffs hadn’t heard of the Japanese entry that triumphed.

“Departures” is certainly a less brash, more personal film than those other two. Many viewers will find it no less powerful, though. It’s a beautifully shot ode to a dying ritual, one that gives the troubled soul at the film’s center new life.

The film opens with an “encoffinment,” a ceremony that prepares the deceased for a peaceful departure from this world. It’s a lovely ritual and one lovingly performed by Daigo (Masahiro Motoki). The family watches the body being washed and arranged, and when Daigo discovers a (rather humorous) problem, he deals with it sensitively.

He’s actually quite new to the profession. In voice-over driving to the job, he informs us that he moved back to his smaller hometown from Tokyo just two months ago. “It’s been an awkward time,” he reflects. After the ceremony, the film rewinds two months, and we learn why.

Daigo is a cellist whose orchestra was disbanded; he knows he’s not good enough to get another position. He’s heartbroken, not just for himself, but for his loyal wife, Mika (Ryoko Hirosue). His cheerful, pretty young wife takes it all in stride, though, even when they move back to his dead mother’s house. He has trouble finding a job, but when he does stumble upon the travel agency for the departed — thinking it’s an actual travel agency — he’s too embarrassed to tell his wife what he does all day. Cleaning the bodies of dead people is looked down upon in Japanese society.

We understand Daigo’s decision when an old school chum stops speaking to him after discovering his new job. It means, though, that he has no one on whom to unload his troubles after a difficult day of dealing with the dead. (It doesn’t help when his wife puts a chicken head in front of him after a particularly rough time.) His only solace — and it’s bittersweet — comes from listening to the classical records his father left when he abandoned the family.

One of the things that makes “Departures” so moving is its subtlety. Just from watching Daigo listen to this music, we understand why he pursued a career as a cellist when it’s clear he didn’t have the talent to make it. Now he’s an artist who makes the dead beautiful again, but he can’t share that experience with the woman he loves.

There is plenty to this film besides the touching story — the delicious shots of food being carefully prepared, the stirring orchestral score. At the center, though, are the relationships the reserved Daigo, who’s never recovered from his childhood abandonment, has with his wife and his mentor (Tsutomu Yamazaki). All three actors are skilled in communicating difficult emotions just with their faces and in bringing to life the gentle humor that leavens this very affecting movie about death and letting go.

★★★½

TITLE: “Departures” (“Okuribito”)

RATING: PG-13 (thematic material)

CREDITS: Directed by Yojiro Takita. Written by Kundo Koyama.

RUNNING TIME: 130 minutes

WEB SITE: departures-themovie.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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