When "Departures" was announced as the foreign-language Oscar winner in February, it was the first time a film from Japan had won the award in more than 50 years.
Overtaking what were widely considered to be the neck-and-neck front-runners, "Waltz With Bashir" from Israel and "The Class" from France, no one was more surprised to hear "Departures" called than the film's director, Yojiro Takita.
A handful of Oscar prognosticators and insiders had been turning to the film in the final buildup to the event, simply because "Departures" is such an audience-friendly picture. Opening Friday in Los Angeles, "Departures" plays as a gen- tle comedy of manners in its early sections before it slowly transitions into a heart-tugging story of forgiveness and redemption.
When a self-admittedly so-so cello-player (Masahiro Motoki) finds himself unemployed after his orchestra in Tokyo goes out of business, he returns to his small rural hometown. Mistakenly answering an ad for what he thinks is a travel agency, he reluctantly takes a job as an "encoffiner," someone who performs a ceremonial preparation to corpses before burial to ready them for their journey into the afterlife.
At first he hides his new job from his wife and old friends in town. Taken under the wing of his new boss (Tsutomu Yamazaki, familiar to American audiences from the one-time art-house hit "Tampopo"), he comes to appreciate the deeper meaning of his new line of work. Lessons are learned, old wounds healed, etc.
"Departures" has won more than 80 awards from around the globe and has taken in more than $60 million at the Japanese box office.
"There was no way I could have imagined the film would take off like this," Takita said recently through a translator in Los Angeles. "When you have death as a theme, people don't generally tend to get excited about it. So I had no way of knowing how the audience would receive it. We've been fortunate."
The project originated with its star, Motoki, who became taken with a book on the practice of encoffining and thought it would make a good movie. After reading an early draft of the script by Kundo Koyama, Takita, a veteran director with dozens of films to his credit, signed on.
"I knew of the existence of encoffiners, but I had never actually seen it with my own eyes," Takita said. "It's important to emphasize this was not a practice that was very common in Japan at all. It's safe to say that most Japanese people were unfamiliar with the existence of encoffiners before the film came out; it was more of a niche service offered in rural areas."
The film's earnest emotionalism made it stand apart from the presumed front-runners for the Academy Award. "Waltz With Bashir" is a mix of personalized nonfiction storytelling and animation, while "The Class" is charged with youthful energy and raw realism.
"By the time we arrived in Los Angeles for the awards, we'd already been hearing that 'Waltz With Bashir' and 'The Class' were the reported favorites," said Takita. "So we actually felt relaxed going into it.
"At a symposium over that weekend, I had a chance to see clips from each film but not the entire film, and my impression was they all felt very strong and any of them could win the award. But I also felt 'Departures' could hold its own."
The awards picked up by "Departures" until then had largely been at more out-of-the-way festivals in places like Montreal and Palm Springs, away from the media-spotlight of the Berlin-Sundance-Cannes-Toronto circuit many journalists follow. So its win over the front-runners didn't sit well with some.
Critic Tony Rayns, who for decades has been deeply involved in bringing Asian films to Western audiences, recently wrote dismissively of "Departures," calling the film "a paean to the good-looking corpse" before declaring, " 'Departures' will be forgotten tomorrow."
Scott Foundas, film critic for the LA Weekly and member of the selection committee for the New York Film Festival, has frequently derided the process by which the academy bestows its foreign-language award.
After writing off "Departures" as a "relentlessly mediocre tear-jerker," he more exactingly noted, " 'Departures' was easily the most conventional, Hollywood-style movie of the five foreign language nominees."
What many who are invested in the festival world have perhaps forgotten is that "foreign language" does not necessarily have to be synonymous with "art film."
"What I always say of audiences in general," remarked Mark Johnson, chairman of the academy's foreign-language category, "and it usually holds true for the academy, is the emotional will always trump the cerebral. And so there were certain movies people thought would win, and yet the voters clearly preferred 'Departures,' which is a very emotional movie. You could see an American studio version."
For his part, Takita is simply happy to shine a light on an aspect of Japanese culture that had been little known both at home and abroad.
"I don't prefer to classify my films as either art or entertainment," he said. "My film dealt with universal themes and offered a general message of healing. Perhaps that's what left an impression with the academy."