Home | Review Archive | The Bucket 'Blog | Screening Log | Film Festival Coverage | Contact Danny



Starring: Masahiro Motoki, Ryoko Hirosue, Tsutomu Yamazaki, Kimiko Yo

Directed by: Yôjirô Takita

Produced by: Toshiaki Nakazawa, Ichirô Nobukuni, Toshihisa Watai

Written by: Kundo Koyama

Distributor: Regent Releasing

      In the midst of watching one Sandra Bullock “heartwarmer” after the next, we cynical critics often forget how effective and how human melodrama can be. The genre’s reputation has been tarnished by its association with soap-operas and rom-coms, and that’s a shame because it was once a cornerstone of cinema. Yôjirô Takita’s Departures, winner of this year’s Oscar for Best Foreign Film, may occasionally fall victim to the same schmaltz that Bullock melodramas often do, but it’s largely a reminder that melodrama can still be a great way to tell a story.

     The audience first meets protagonist Daigo Kobayashi (Masahiro Motoki) as a renowned Tokyo cellist, but soon after, his orchestra’s run is discontinued due to poor ticket sales. Penniless after spending 18 million yen on his instrument, Daigo has no choice but to move with his wife Mika (Ryoko Hirosue) to the country and live in the house his mother left him. Desperate to find a job, he responds to a wanted ad for a “departures” business, which he assumes is a travel agency. Little does he actually know, the mysteriously high-paying job is for an encoffiner, one who prepares bodies for cremation in a ritual ceremony before the deceased’s family and friends.

     Daigo takes the job despite the shocking, nauseating realization of his first assignment. He doesn’t tell anyone what he’s actually doing, Mika included, because of the social stigmas attached to the profession. (Think garbage-man in America times one-hundred.) But as Daigo becomes more involved in the process, learning from boss Ikuei Sasaki (Tsutomu Yamazaki), he is deeply moved and healed by it. In particular, the man’s view of his father, who abandoned the family when he was six-years-old, changes dramatically.

     The characters in the film feel like real people and the tradition it details is portrayed authentically; director Takita and writer Kundo Koyama simply exaggerate the emotions in order to keep the viewer’s connection with the material alive. It’s a poignant experience, not at all like the melodramas we usually scorn. The style is especially helpful for Western audiences, too, because the foreign funeral practice at the forefront of Departures could have otherwise seemed detached and uninteresting. Instead, watching the complicated and artful ceremonies being conducted is not only involving in the way that it brings out elements of the characters, but also as a documentation of a cultural ritual.

     Of course, no good melodrama can succeed without the aid of compelling, believable performances, which the cast of Departures uniformly deliver. Lead actor Masahiro Motoki is sympathetic and engaging no matter how removed from the viewer’s own life he seems. As the anchor of the movie’s emotions, Motoki beautifully balances the character’s (rare) reserved moments and his overflowing ones. His interaction with actress Ryoko Hirosue, who plays his wife, is also essential to the story. What’s especially refreshing about this element is that the performances pay keen attention to the inherently different natural roles of women and men in relationships. Mika looks to Daigo as a provider, but doesn’t value this dynamic so much that she wouldn’t be rattled by the realization that his tireless work is done as a defamed encoffiner, let alone the fact he actually likes the job. Providing counterbalance to that relationship, actor Tsutomu Yamazaki excels in the film’s subtlest part, Daigo’s employer and quiet mentor.

     Another treat is Departures’ unexpected sense of humor. In an opening sequence, Daigo and Ikeui befuddling discover something shocking about the subject of an encoffining job that is well-known to onlookers. Their reaction is priceless—a joyful reprieve from otherwise very serious material.

     Unfortunately, Departures never achieves greatness because it ultimately succumbs to the overwrought type of melodrama it initially defies. In particular, there is an extended montage sequence in the third act featuring Daigo playing his cello atop grassy hills, as if to round out his character transformation, that could easily be featured in a parody of foreign films. Director Takita generally overemphasizes the film’s ending, which allows all the elements to fall into place too easily. Let’s not forget that melodrama, which is valuable when measured (as is the case in the first two acts of the movie), can be destructively overdone.

     Then again, I’m almost tempted to forgive the destructive passages in Departures as they are sensory delights despite their emotional falseness, showing off Takeshi Hamadi’s lush cinematography and Joe Hisaishi’s catchy (if overused) score. Despite its imperfections, this is a thoroughly beautiful movie – just the type of classical filmmaking American audiences could stand to see more of.

-Danny Baldwin, Bucket Reviews

Review Published on: 5.28.2009

Screened on: 2.27.2009 at the Wilshire Screening Room in Beverly Hills, CA.


Departures is rated PG-13 and runs 130 minutes.

Back to Home