"Departures" is a gentle film about a quiet man in conflict with his world, his father, himself. It is also about death and its rituals. Yet the film manages to be anything but dark; whimsy and sweet irony are laced throughout, a warmhearted blend that turned it into the surprise winner of 2008's Oscar for foreign-language film.
Daigo, its central character, is a cello player of great dedication but middling talent, a member of a Tokyo orchestra playing to half-filled houses while he dreams big classical dreams. The demons inside Daigo (Masahiro Motoki) are quiet too. They don't so much rage as roughhouse around inside of him.
When the orchestra falls on hard times and Daigo finds himself out of a job, his dreams are the first thing to go. Then the beloved cello, soon after the apartment in the city. Stripped of everything, including his dignity, he finally begins the journey back home with his wife, Mika (Ryoko Hirosue), returning to the house he grew up in. The memory of his mother is there, but more powerful still is the specter of the father who left when he was a boy.
There are powerful themes in "Departures," of failure and lost fathers, but Japanese director Yojiro Takita and screenwriter Kundo Koyama handle them gently too, creating a Minimalist painting of a film that uses the sweeping solitude of the countryside, the steamy intimacy of the public baths and the close quarters of Daigo's home to give us a measure of his moods. Takita is blessed with actors who move lightly, gracefully within this landscape.
Soon Daigo is answering an ad for a company that specializes in "departures." But what he envisioned as a travel agency turns out to be a company that deals with departures of a very different sort. Death is the business here, with funeral director Sasaki, a delightfully wry Tsutomu Yamazaki, in charge of the details.
But it's a messy business, we soon find out, as Sasaki begins to teach Daigo exactly what they do, a profession the Japanese call encoffiners. The first lesson is an uncomfortably literal one as Sasaki demonstrates, step by step, the indelicate process of preparing the body for its final journey. It's going to be a training video, the cameras are rolling, a mortified Daigo, naked except for a pair of adult diapers, is the reluctant model.
What is a comic farce with Daigo undergoing the probing and the plugging of his various orifices, becomes something else again in the real world. With the beauty and precision of a tea ceremony, Sasaki and Daigo clean and dress bodies as devastated, and often divided, families watch; repairing whatever damage life has done in whatever way they can.
The encoffiners' real task is to bring dignity to death, respect to the deceased and solace to those who grieve, and it is hard not to be moved, not to imagine what the death of a loved one will look like, feel like to you.
Death, of course, brings many revelations with it; some harsh, some kind. And "Departures" has many for Daigo, Mika and the rest.
Along the way Daigo finds the first cello his father gave him as a child. There is a precious stone too and a story behind it. In the end, death is always near, but hope is too, as Daigo picks up his bow, settles the small cello against him and again begins to play.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for thematic material
Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes
Playing: In limited release at the Arclight, Hollywood, and the Landmark in West L.A.