By Rick Kisonak | July 22, 2009

This year’s Oscars broadcast was short on surprises. No one streaked past the host. Roberto Benigni did not clamber over the seat in front of him and trample A-listers on his way to the podium. In fact, the show’s most shocking moment probably came when it was announced the award for Best Foreign Language Film would go not to “Waltz With Bashir,” as widely assumed, but to the relatively low-profile Japanese nominee, “Departures.”

Certainly American viewers were dumbfounded since the only people on this side of the pond who’d seen the movie at the time were Academy members provided with award consideration screeners. In Japan, however, the picture was one of 2008’s biggest hits and had already snagged an impressive ten statuettes at that country’s version of the Oscars. I’d be the first to agree that “Bashir” is a far more challenging, groundbreaking work and admit that I had my money on it. But the truth is the two films are cinematic apples and oranges. On its own terms, “Departures” is a thing of rare and remarkable beauty.

Masahiro Motoki, who achieved pop star status in his native country as a boy band singer, displays his not inconsiderable acting chops as Daigo, a thirtysomething cellist whose Tokyo-based symphony orchestra is dissolved early in the story. Forced to face the fact that he lacks sufficient talent to find work in a more successful ensemble, he and his plucky wife, Mika (Ryoko Hirosue), decide to move to the mountains of rural Japan and live in the home his mother left him.

The movie’s core joke has Daigo spotting a help wanted ad in which the word “departures” is prominently featured. “No experience required,” it reads. “Short working hours.” Surmising the business is a travel agency, he stops in the following day to apply. Two unexpected developments ensue: first, the owner, Mr. Sasaki (veteran actor Tsutomu Yamazaki), sits him down, chucks his resume to one side and hires the stunned young man on the spot at a whopping salary. Second, he explains that the newspaper ad contained a misprint. It shouldn’t have read “working with departures”; it should have read “working with the departed.”

Mr. Sasaki’s business, we suddenly realize, deals with a very special kind of travel – journeys not to exotic locales but to the soul’s final destination. Director Yojiro Takita and screenwriter Kundo Koyama don’t speculate at any length on what that might be. Their focus is earthbound, on the body that’s been vacated, the family left behind and an ancient ritual which prepares all parties for that which comes next – the furnace of the crematorium.

Under his new employer, Daigo learns the art of encoffinment, a tender, gracefully choreographed process of cleansing, making up, and enrobing bodies that’s equal parts sacred rite and theatrical production. Several procedures are performed in the course of the picture and I’ve got to be honest. I found them more spellbinding than the splashiest special effect in any of the summer’s blockbusters. The peace watching the process brings to the bereaved is easy to comprehend.

The script also assists us in understanding the husband’s reasons for not divulging the true nature of his new gig to his wife. While the culture’s caste system is supposedly a thing of the past, certain prejudices live on and one of the most resilient is a traditional revulsion toward anyone whose living brings them in contact with the dead. Several hometown friends shun Daigo and eventually word does reach Mika, leading to another sort of departure.

Based on the novel Coffinman by Shinmon Aoki, the film offers a moving rumination on the link between the living and the dead along with a fascinating portrait of life in rural Japan and traditions gradually being discarded by the young. It’s also funny as hell in places. One of my favorite scenes involves the first encoffinment the apprentice performs. “She’s beautiful,” he whispers over his shoulder to his boss. Moments later, as he ritually washes the body beneath elaborate garments, his eyes widen. “She has a thing!” Typical of the way Takita again and again deftly shifts between the somber and the comic, the scene culminates with the suicide’s father realizing tearfully and too late that, prior to the young man’s death, he’d never really lost the son he loved.

Which brings me to a code red hanky alert. Be forewarned: “Departures” tugs at the heartstrings as skillfully as Daigo bows the strings of his cello. Anyone who has lost a parent in particular is likely to mist up more than once. If the grieving families and plaintive score by Joe Hisahi (“Howl’s Moving Castle”) don’t get you, the picture’s last minute twist is guaranteed to nail your blubber button. At the same time, the characters are so likable and the story ultimately so uplifting Takita succeeds in turning a tale about the business of death into the feel-good movie of the summer. It may or may not have deserved that Oscar but there’s no question it definitely deserves to be seen.

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