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JUNE 19, 2009

Life Before Death

The Oscar-winning Departures is no masterpiece, but it's much braver than its detractors realize.

By Mark Jenkins

Also opening in D.C. this week, two films I reviewed for NPR: TETRO and YEAR ONE.

More Silverdocs: For ongoing coverage of the festival, including video interviews with filmmakers, see Dave's Nuttycombe's blog.

MANY HUMAN RITUALS, some of them grotesque, have been devised to guide the soul to the afterlife — or wherever. So far, there's no evidence that any of them work. All we know is what death ceremonies offer to the survivors. That comfort is one of the two profoundly moving aspects of Departures, the Japanese film that surprised — and, in some cases, peeved — American movie mavens by winning the 2009 foreign film Oscar.

Since its U.S. release, Departures has received more good than bad reviews, but some of the pans have been fierce. They've also been clueless, since the film's second poignant aspect is culturally specific, and not really explained in the movie. It's easy for an outsider to miss, but director Yojiro Takita's film is an assault on one of Japan's less charming traditions: the caste system.

American reviewers's hostility to Departures is based in part on the effrontery of its Oscar win. That's understandable. Waltzing with Bashir and The Class are stronger films overall, and the former probably lost mostly because of its politics. But Departures is better than the average foreign-Oscar winner, and it arrived in an unusually strong year for the category. And while it seems to fit the standard criterion for foreign-Oscar statuette, being the nicest of the five, it's not all that nice. There's significant conflict in Kundo Koyama's script.

The film's spine is the evolution of young Daigo Kobayashi (boy-band veteran Masahiro Motoki), who loses his gig as a classical cellist when his Tokyo orchestra is disbanded. (The subtext here is two decades of economic stagnation, which has led tycoons and corporations to abandon the sort of money-losing cultural sidelines that are common in Japan.) Daigo and his impeccably devoted wife Mika (Ryoko Hirosue) move to the cellist's hometown in northern Honshu, where the family home doubles as the bar Daigo's deceased mother used to run. Dad fled when his son was young, so Daigo doesn't have the thing he'll soon be celebrating: family.

Answering a newspaper ad, Daigo find himself working on a provisional basis for Sasaki (Tsutomu Yamazaki), an earthy veteran nokanshi (a person who prepares a corpse and places it in a coffin). The hire is conditional not because Daigo has to impress Sasaki; the older man has already decided that his new employee is ideal. It's Daigo who must warm to the job, which is not merely morbid and sometimes icky. Nokanshi is a taboo profession in Japan, where work involving the remains of people and animals was once limited to the burakumin, the lowest caste. Officially, burakumin status was abolished more than a century ago, but prejudice persists against the clan and the jobs it traditionally did.

First, Daigo must master the craft, in the process coming to understand that he provides a useful and even transforming service to his clients. Next, he must deal with the horror of his friends and wife, from whom he tries to hide his new profession. Then — after Sasaki has become his surrogate dad — Daigo is offered an opportunity for a sort of reconciliation with his birth father, a predictable finale that the movie would have been stronger for avoiding.

Most pans of Departures are correct, so far as they go. The film is indeed too long, with an extended montage sequence in the center that screams to be cut. Its attempts at raucous comedy — involving a partially putrefied body — and sentimental reconciliation — with Daigo's runaway dad — are fairly crude. Yet such crowd-pleasing elements also expand the movie (and its audience). Departures certainly isn't as impeccably lyrical as Hiroshi Teshigahara's 1989 Rikyu, another celebration of Japanese ritual. But we wouldn't be discussing Departures if it were as austere as Rikyu, because it would never have gotten a U.S. release, let alone won an Oscar. (Rikyu actually opened commercially in D.C., but closed quickly after an uncomprehending Washington Post review.)

The critical hostility toward Departures mirrors the puritanical response to Slumdog Millionaire: Such movies just don't have the right to be both disturbing and entertaining! But where anyone, even a film snob, could comprehend the darker side of Slumdog, Departures is subtler. That's because the burakumin are not discussed, or even named, in polite Japanese society. It just would not have been possible for Takita to address the subject more explicitly.

This has led to confusion among American commentators, who routinely suppose that Daigo's new job can be described as "undertaker" or "mortician." Anyone who watches the film carefully, however, will note that Daigo and his boss don't linger after preparing the body and placing it in the coffin. Theirs is a very specific vocation, one that has no Western equivalent. There are few hints at that Daigo has entered forbidden territory, notably when the horrified Mika calls his job "unclean" on her way out the door and back to Tokyo.

(There's one other Western misapprehension: that the film exalts tradition over modernity, and rural life over the city. In fact, Japanese culture is quite comfortable straddling such oppositions, and doesn't feel the need to choose between them. Most Japanese have no apparent difficulty integrating austere Buddhist rituals with sensual everyday pleasures, or worshipping nature and the open countryside while living in a tiny apartment in a concrete box in Tokyo, Yokohama, or Osaka.)

Daigo's decision to keep his controversial job is what makes Departures subversive. Quietly, the movie suggests that anyone can do the work once relegated to burakumin, and not be demeaned by it. This is no small provocation in a country like Japan, where outsiders are regarded with suspicion, and members of ethnic groups (notably Koreans) are never fully assimilated, even after multiple generations. Daigo isn't exactly a martyr — his life isn't that hard, even when most people are shunning him — but in Japan intentionally identifying with a minority group takes courage.

The movie's other powerful aspect is the gentle nokanshi ritual itself, which is observed by the entire extended family — and Takita's camera. The rite provides an opportunity for the death of a loved one to truly register, and for family members to make final gestures of affection. As a old woman's body is prepared, for example, her granddaughter offers her a pair of the oversized socks favored by Japanese schoolgirls. It's scenes like these, not the conventional narrative arc, that give Departures such resonance. The movie is soft and lumpy in places, but it greets death with a clarity that no Hollywood filmmaker could muster. That alone is worth an Oscar.

DEPARTURES — 2008, 131 min; at Landmark Bethesda Row.