E1 Entertainment // 2009 // 130 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Franck Tabouring (Retired) // January 28th, 2010
The gift of last memories.
Yojiro Takita's Departures draws a powerful portrait of an insecure man embarking on an emotional journey that eventually helps him rediscover the wonder of living via the departure of the dead. Winner of ten Japan Academy Prize Awards and the 2009 Oscar for best foreign language film, Departures is a wonderful cinematic experience and poetic reflection on how the reality of dying can fill one man's damaged heart with new hope and passion.
Written with stunning attention to detail and beautifully acted, Takita's film stars Masahiro Motoki as Daigo, a skilled cellist who decides to move back to his small hometown after the sudden disbandment of his big Tokyo orchestra. Together with his wife Mika (Ryoko Hirosue), Daigo attempts to forget the past and start over, even though the return to a place he left years ago feels rather awkward.
Desperate for work, Daigo ends up stumbling into the business of "encoffinment," which involves preparing the dead before they're placed into a coffin. At first, Daigo feels rather uncomfortable cleaning corpses in front of mourners during what is considered a traditional ceremony, but, as time goes by, he slowly realizes that what he does can indeed be a both spiritual and peaceful experience.
Departures is a very calm, culturally enriching experience that treats its subject matter with a lot of care. For Daigo, preparing the dead for their final departure gives him a new sense of fulfillment. Even though he decides not to tell his wife what it really is he does, Daigo finds deep meaning in his job. He sees how mourners who lost a loved one appreciate his work, and for him, it turns out to be the perfect way to rediscover himself as a person.
A film about the connection of the living and the dead, Takita's film is clearly a dramatic piece, even though a subtle touch of humor occasionally helps ease the tension caused by the movie's serious subject. Those little moments are never overpowering, though, and the film does a fine job balancing the sad moments with the uplifting ones. It all flows quite beautifully.
"Departures" is a slow-moving experience. Even though the film won an Academy Award, it's clearly not the kind of film that appeals to a mass audience. If you're used to slow foreign cinema, however, you'll find this to be a very intriguing experience. The movie runs a tad too long (it clocks in at 130 minutes), but most of the plot remains compelling to watch. Some of Takita's longer sequences are particularly beautiful in terms of visuals and depth, and they all give us a ethereal insight into his characters.
Acting is crucial here, but the cast is flawless. Motoki turns in a magical performance, and so do his co-actors. The dialogue they get to work with is strong and filled with honesty and heart, and while the story ends up being a bit overdramatic at times, it's still never overly sappy or superficial. Takita strikes a fine balance here, and I'm not exaggerating when I'm saying he's created a poetic film that is very artistic when it comes to visuals, storyline, and especially music. The beautiful score blew me away.
Departures looks gorgeous, and the cinematography really deserves optimal image quality on the small screen as well. Luckily, the DVD edition of the film offers a strong 1.78:1 widescreen transfer that boasts clean, sharp quality throughout. The audio transfer performs great as well, and especially the musical segments are a pleasure to listen to.
The bonus material on the disc includes an informative 11-minute interview with Yojiro Takita, who essentially talks about how the film was made, what it means to him, and what it is about. He talks in great length about the movie's focus on death, but he also touches on the nature of the characters and some specific scenes he feels are of utter importance. It's a short chat, but Takita certainly doesn't blow any smoke.
I'm a big fan of foreign cinema, and I've always found many of these films to be both passionate and instructional even. Different cultures teach us different things about subjects that impact everyone, and so do movies. Departures is a thrilling experience, and I found it very easy to appreciate the film's messages and its deep meaning. It's a movie everyone should see.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: E1 Entertainment
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Japanese)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Japanese)
Running Time: 130 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13