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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.
E1 Entertainment's DVD presents Departures in an anamorphic transfer that is loyal to its source material. While the packaging claims a 1.78:1 aspect ratio, the transfer is actually slightly letter-boxed to preserve the film's 1.85:1 theatrical ratio. The film's look is naturally slightly hazy, so although details are apparent, the image never stands out as particularly sharp.
The disc includes the original Japanese soundtrack in a Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track and a stereo mix. Joe Hisaishi's cello-focused score is one of the high points of the film, and it sounds very good in the rear channels while the main dialogue comes through the front. The stereo mix provides a good approximation of the surround mix for those with simpler audio setups.
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.
The extras are limited to the film's theatrical trailer and a pretty routine 11-minute interview with director Takita Yojiro. Yojiro generally answers dull questions in a dull manner, but a couple of moments, such as a discussion of the cello, reach a deeper level of interest.
Departures is a rather routine film whose value depends on its emotional connection with the viewer. For those who agree with the honors that the Academy bestowed upon the film, this DVD presents it well, although the source print could be cleaner and the extras more enticing.
Jeremy Mathews has been subjecting films to his criticism since 2000. He has contributed to several publications, including Film Threat, Salt Lake City Weekly, the Salt Lake Tribune, In Utah This Week and The Wasatch Journal. He also runs the blog The Same Dame and fronts the band NSPS.