Tribeca Review: Departures or The Film That Ruined Your Oscar Pool

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The cellist has become prestige cinema’s musician du jour. For one, there’s The Soloist, Joe Wright’s latest tearjerker about the schizophrenic skid row genius Nathaniel Anthony Ayers. But more anticipated (at least away from the left coast) is Yojiro Takita’s surprisingly absorbing Departures, or that once-obscure Japanese film that spoiled your perfect Oscar-pool entry by yoinking Best Foreign Film from the outstretched hands of Waltz For Bashir and The Class.

A pleasing if plainly sentimental weave of the humorous and the morbid, this rhapsodically-scored film tracks the “Self”-discovery (hint: it’s shuffled off in his fatherless past) of winsome Everyman Daigo (Masahiro Motoki), whose hope for cellist fame goes pfft when his Tokyo orchestra disbands following another half-packed performance — after all, who has cash money for symphonies? Fortunately, folks still shell out for “Nokanshi,” or specialists in the esoteric field of “encoffining” (the eerie-to-us, but serenely Japanese ritual of washing, dressing, and dolling up the deceased before cremation, all without exposing a flicker of skin to the observing family mourners); despite their meticulous craft, these professionals are themselves treated like Untouchables, due to some societal taboo with their gatekeeping role. Packing up his belongings — including his doting spouse Mika (Ryoko Hirosue, a simpering, pretty prop used, by and large, for plot advancement like her “me or the métier” ultimatum) — and heading north to the picturesque, cherry-blossomed outpost he once called home, Daigo stumbles into what becomes his life calling after accepting a well-paid position that’s simply advertised as “working with departures.” You can imagine the mortifying hilarity that ensues when he sees his first ever corpse.

The detailed acts of actual “encoffinment” spellbind (Motoki trained for what amounts to pinpoint performance art): here, Takita masterfully inserts slapstick and laughter, which help ballast (if not effectively bolster) the outsized issues at hand, viz., Death, Memory, Guilt, Compassion. Back in his childhood haunts, these uppercase concerns also reemerge from their dormant state within Daigo; but, the delicate theatre of this white-collar death rite actually becomes his conduit to reconciling the personal. By the credits, his “own identity fad[es] out into a grey impalpable world: the solid world itself, which these dead had one time reared and lived in, dissolv[es] and dwindl[es],” as Joyce once fathomed.

Besides the revelatory sweep of the parental/filial responses toward bereavement — for instance, the trademark Japanese politesse make each session all the more understated and poignant — is an especially boffo scene that involves the screwball creation of a how-to DVD. It would be remiss to not mention Tsutomu Yamazaki’s wonderfully deadpan incarnation of Sasaki, the kahuna who mentors Daigo on living while literally facing death everyday — this sometimes involves noshing on fried chicken, or, as the sagely elder says, the cruel fact that “the living eat the dead.” Their nuanced bonding has father-son scribbled large in the widescreen margins, but Yamazaki’s impassive presence keeps it from getting weepy.

What weighs down the film from being entirely beguiling is the Oscar (or Obvious) motif: look for the returned-to-its-habitat octopus or the homeward-bound salmon. Most egregious is a stone, which is modestly introduced as an olden way to express one’s feelings to a loved one (smooth=happy, rough=worried), but soon grows boulder-big in its schmaltzy symbolism. And let’s not talk about the field-of-dreams cello solo. Yet, as one patron intones about the onscreen work: everything is done peacefully and beautifully. Sumptuously-shot and heartening in its own ways, Departures teems with life in all its strange permutations, oscillating between expected and eloquent statements on passing from one existential phase to the next.

Departures premieres tonight at 8 p.m. It also screens tomorrow and Thursday; click here for more information.