Takita Yojiro's Depatures is the kind of film that is thoroughly pleased with itself. What is ostensibly the story of an angsty young man finding his way in life plays second cello to a jumbled collection of cheap laughs and cheap tears. In the end, it's hard to shake the impression that, with a little effort, the film could have accomplished something much more profound.
The film, which won the Best Foreign Film Oscar in 2009, explores the world of encoffinment, a ceremonial process of cleaning and dressing bodies before putting them in coffins. Apparently it is not very well known in Japan--but I didn't realize that while watching the film. Everyone seems to know what it is and have a strongly held opinion about it.
Daigo drops his dream of playing cello professionally when his orchestra goes bust. He responds to a job advertisement to work in "departures," which he thinks might involve the travel business, and ends up immediately hired as an assistant at a funeral home. His boss, of course, is a quirky old man with lots of wisdom hidden beneath his quiet exterior.
Much of the film's conflicts arise from the negative view people hold against encoffiners. Friends and family shun Daigo when they learn of his new trade, only to eventually reach a new understanding of who he is and what he does. I claim zero knowledge of Japanese culture and its view of those who put dead bodies to rest, so I take the film's premise at face value. However, its portrayal of people's negative views feels completely false. Everyone who witnesses the encoffinment is deeply moved by the procedure and the respect shown toward the dead, so much so that they all immediately change their outlook on the profession and those who practice it. But if it were really so simple, then there would be no stigma attached to the job at all, since everyone walks away with a deep respect for the practitioners. And, although it's apparently not well known, everyone seems to have it done.
Departures is well-made and artfully photographed, but fails to establish real emotional truths. Ultimately the film reduces itself to clumsy, mug-filled attempts at broad comedy and awkward, repetitive tear-jerker scenes. You get the sense that the filmmakers think they're being more profound than they actually are.
The translation of the subtitles is good, but they also function as a guide for the hearing-impaired. If we're looking at an orchestra playing and hearing it play, we don't need "[orchestra playing]" to appear on the screen. It's an annoying distraction that could have been avoided by including one track with elaborations and one with only dialogue.