Departures – a DVD review

The Japanese film Departures begins when an out of work cellist answers an advertisement he believes is for a travel agent because of the word “departures.” He becomes the assistant to an encoffiner, someone who, in front of the mourners, dresses and prepares the body of the deceased to be placed in the coffin.

While this may sound depressing, the movie was actually very sweet. Actor Masohiro Motoki makes cellist Daigo Kobayashi one of the most likeable characters around. His wide-eyed earnestness impresses the encoffiner who “interviews” him for the position by looking him up and down and pronouncing, “Well, you’re not depressing,” and hiring him on the spot.

I once read a book that takes place in feudal Japan. In it, people who handle the dead were a class unto themselves and were prohibited from mixing with others. Remnants of this attitude are shown in this story, when Daigo is shunned by a friend, and when his own until-then supportive wife is ashamed of his job.

I found the process of encoffining to be fascinating, both solemn and dignified. Daigo’s own initial reluctance toward his job changes over time, largely due to his boss, played as joyfully idiosyncratic by Tsutomu Yamazaki. His dry wit and noble bearing elevate every scene. There are several scenes of the encoffiners dining with gusto, seeming to affirm life with their appetite.

However, this is not a movie primarily about enconffining. It is about Daigo’s journey in his attitude about his job and about his life. While Daigo is sweet and likeable, he is also very passive, taking the job because it is offered and not because he wants it, keeping secret at first how he makes a living, and only becomes an active person when his own respect for the support the job offers mourners begins to grow.

Director Yojiro Takita, working from a script by Kundo Koyama, fills the movie with moments of endearing softness, beautiful artistry, and gentle humor to contrast with the variety of grief and mourning with which Daigo comes into contact. The score is a lovely, haunting piece filled with cello (of course), and it stays with you long after the movie is over.

The film won the 2009 Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. It is in Japanese with English subtitles. DVD extras include an interview with director Yojiro Takita. Departures is available for rental, and for instant play on Netflix.

by Heather Craig

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