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This film won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 2009. It beat out Ploning, the Philippines' official entry for the same category in the 2009 Oscars (read vatski's review of Ploning here). While I am not about to compare the two (and I can't anyway since I never watched Ploning properly), I can honestly say that Departures more than deserves its spot at the Oscars.

THE STORY

Daigo Kobayashi is a cellist for an orchestra in Tokyo with dreams about making it big in the industry. Unfortunately, the orchestra gets disbanded, leaving Daigo without a job and 18 million yen in debt. At his wit's end, he and his incredibly agreeable wife return to his mother's old home in the countryside and start again. Eventually, he finds a new job that has something to do with "assisting departures" and gets hired on the spot. Of course, it's too good to be true as the job turns out to be that of an "encoffiner" and his task is not to assist in departures but to "assist the departed." Ostracized by friends and even his wife, Daigo begins to take a certain kind of pride in his work, mastering the role of the gentle gatekeeper between life and death and between the souls of the dead and the family they leave behind.

REVIEW

Before anything else, there is something you need to understand about this film. Daigo's work as an encoffiner is not a socially accepted occupation, at least, not to the Japanese. The encoffiner's closeness to death connotes "ritual impurity" -- i.e. the person is "unclean" because his occupation is considered "tainted" with death. The closest Japanese term for it is burakumin, and even though it is not entirely correct, it does explain a little of the social stigma that Daigo experiences in the movie.

That said, this film is BEAUTIFUL. I know, it seems like an odd thing to say for a movie that is about death and dying. But watch the film and you'll know exactly what I mean.

To begin in the middle: Departures opens with Daigo performing his first "encoffinment" under his boss' watchful eyes. We look at what he does with the eyes of a stranger. The work is precise and flawless. There is no wasted movement, no stray gestures. There is something almost mechanical about the whole thing. Each motion is ceremonial; each movement, an expression of reverence and respect. And then, as our main character washes the dead girl's entire body, he discovers something. The flow is disrupted. He draws his boss aside.

"It has the thing," he says.

"What thing?" The boss asks. It takes him about three seconds to figure it out just as Daigo, with the usual flourish, offers him the washcloth. After the boss checks the corpse for himself, then comes an unusual dilemma for our encoffiners.

The boss quietly approaches one of the watching family members and very politely explains that after the cleansing they will apply make-up to the deceased. "We have different make-ups for male and female...." And just like that, the solemn proceeding turns into an amusing microcosmic family squabble.

Departures is comprised of many great, encapsulated scenes like that littered all throughout. A strange mixture of great solemnity and humor that borders on irreverence but without, however, throwing disrespect on the material. If you are familiar at all with Japanese films or television, you'll know that this combination is not exactly unusual. But what puts Departures a cut above the rest is its ability to make flawless transitions from seriousness to comedy, making you go from crying buckets to giving wry smirks. Make no mistake. This is a serious film that deals with a loaded subject, but that does not mean it can't draw a smile or a laugh from its audience.

And when the drama hits, it will hit you hard, even as you can see it coming from a mile away. It helps that the film explores many contemporary and timeless themes. It deals with unemployment (you can't be more timely than that in this hour of the recession), personal dreams and destiny. But most of all, it deals with relationships, not only the ones we have with the persons closest to us, but even to those we meet along the way without even realizing the impact we have on that other person's life. Like a metaphor for its title, the movie will take you for a ride through life and its eventual end, with all its hardships and joys, adventures and mishaps, meetings and partings.

But Departures, for all its beautiful story, would not have quite the impact without Joe Hisashi's delightful score. From rich orchestrations (there's a fantastic performance by the Tokyo symphony orchestra of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, watch for it) to sustained string passages and back to sprightly waltz-like themes, the film score delights and subdues and touches the deepest part of the soul. You can always tell a good soundtrack from its ability to set the tone for a piece of film without taking center stage and with Departures, Joe Hisashi's undeniable elegance and mastery in that aspect shines through.

Much of Departures is filmed with the Japanese countryside as a backdrop. This serves only to enhance that "quiet" quality of this film. The scenes are beautiful and this beauty is never more effectively utilized than in that one particular scene of heartbreaking parting where a woman stands amid falling cherryblossoms. No words. Just stunning visuals. On that note, dialogue is sparse in Departures. Much like the funeral ritual of cleansing, dressing and putting make-up, every word spoken is loaded with meaning, and entire conversations can happen in the silences in between.

As for the cast, all of them are credited for making their characters as believable as they ever could be. It's not hard to sympathize with Motoki Masahiro's Daigo, a cellist forced to orchestrate a new life for himself in the funeral business when his dreams of being a musician collapses. At first, I found Daigo's wife, Mika (portrayed by Hirosue Ryoko), a bit unbelievable -- sweet (in that sickeningly genki way) but UNBELIEVABLE in her being so agreeable even in the face of her husband's losing his job, his borrowing 18 million yen without telling her, and their moving to the countryside from their relatively posh life in the city. But this is the ideal Japanese wife: she will follow her husband from two steps behind, stopping only when he stops. So when the mask shows a crack, we see a glimpse of Mika's true personality and it is human, and it is brave. Another striking character is Daigo's father figure, the boss (Yamazaki Tsutomu), who embodies the wise old sensei stereotype but expands it a bit by adding personal quirks that makes him a standout.

I could go on and on about the movie's positive sides, but Departures is not a perfect piece of film. Indeed, it is a moving story and I can't quite remember the last time I was touched by and in awe of a movie like this; what Departures lack, ironically enough, is a nice, tight and clean ending. Instead, it ends twice, and because of that, it feels prolonged and a little bit forced. But other than that, Departures is a beautiful movie about enduring, and occasionally funny, life lessons on death and living in spite of it.

THE SCORE

Story - 7
Sound - 10
Cinematography - 8
Picture - 10
Special Effects - 8
Acting - 8

Overall - 8.5/10

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