REVIEW: DVD Release: Departures

Film: Departures
Release date: 10th May 2010
Certificate: 12
Running time: 205 mins
Director: Yojiro Takita
Starring: Masahiro Motoki, Tsutomu Yamazaki, Ryoko Hirosue
Genre: Drama
Studio: Arrow
Format: DVD & Blu-ray
Country: Japan

Amongst numerous domestic and international awards, Departures became the first ever Japanese Oscar-winner, picking up the coveted Foreign Language Academy Award in a year that saw stiff competition from the likes of Waltz With Bashir.

Daigo Kobayashi (Masahiro Motoki ) is a professional cello player of a prestigious Tokyo orchestra. After a successful concert, he receives unexpected and terrible news - the orchestra is closing down. Daigo is suddenly left without and a job and still has to pay back what he owes for the cello, which has cost him a fortune. Together with his wife Mika (Kazuko Yoshiyuki), he decides to go back to Yamagata, the small town in the countryside where he was born.

Trying to put the pieces back together, Daigo answers a vague ad in the newspaper and gets a job in a company which provides an unusual service: the so-called casketing, or the rite of the encoffinment, which prepares the deceased to leave this world, and to ensure a peaceful departure.

Apart from the new job that is asking so much, being back in the old town brings back a life of memories - the childhood spent without a father, who left when Daigo was only a child, still haunts his thoughts. There is where everything started: the cello, the music, but also the sadness and the loneliness.

As the weeks go by, Daigo starts to understand new realities about his job, and becomes a skilled professional. The people who call him appreciate what he does, and are thankful. Those around him do not think the same way, though, and he has to face the stigma that such a profession carries, with his friends and his wife…

Departures is a telling story. The film is designed in a smart way, and efficiently runs the different threads of the plot. It is not easy to deal with deep topics, such as those portrayed here, without being too cold or too moving, but the director ensures the right amount of subtleness and touch. The director used a very fine scale, balancing emotions and feelings to create a cinematic ladder, which the audience climbs together with the main character.

Masahiro Motoki is perfect in the lead role, and gives the exact amount of introspection to his role. In this unusual drama, where the leading feelings are uncertainty and loneliness, but also social stigma and rejection, it is crucial for the main actor to be able to balance these very subtle sensations when it comes to acting.

This characteristic is visible in many a scene throughout the narration. Every night, when Daigo goes back home after work, we have a vignette of insight - he puts on a face when he talks about ‘the job’ with his wife, with whom he has been deceitful (he fears she would not understand, because he himself does not understand).

The casketing job, and the funeral business as a whole, still carry the heavy burden of misconception and social shame. In this sense, what separates Japan from other countries is that it hasn’t lost its meaningful links with the ancient traditions and the culture of the past. In contrast to the technological progress and the globalisation, Japan still looks back at its unique cultural roots, to learn from them, and to go forward. This evergreen cultural base enables director Takita to create a deep and moving piece, from a very simple storyline.

The setting and the soundtrack assist in smoothing and tightening the whole story. The opening camera-shots, driven by the majestic Beethoven’s 9th symphony, give a powerful start, and go well with the indoor camera shots of the over-crowded Tokyo. Afterwards, when Daigo moves to Yamagata, the leading motive becomes the unique melancholic melody produced by his cello. The music fits well with the beautiful landscape of mighty Japanenese mountains that surround the small town, and underlines the time passing by, and the growth of the protagonist. Here, the music is not only used as background, but is itself storytelling - fundamental to the narration.

Departures tells the audience that everyone has a path to follow in life and a role to fulfil, something that is special and made just for them. Finding direction requires strength and courage to evaluate what we have, and acknowledge what we did wrong. The turning point is then to be brave enough to go back and start again, this time on the right path (no matter how bizarre it might seem).

With subtle direction and a standout lead performance, Depatures is a dramatic painting of the surprising directions life can take. Profound and enjoyable. DG

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