Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Death is a funny thing - both peculiar and ha-ha. Director Yojiro Takita and writer Kundo Kayama know this and aren't afraid to give you an emotional punch as well as a punchline. Takita approaches his film as a careful orchestration, blending sweet with sour to produce an unexpected and subtle symphony of moods that was a surprise, but worthy winner of the foreign language Oscar this year.

This idea of an orchestral touchstone is placed in the mind of the viewer from the start, thanks to the central character, Daigo - a cello player, who has reached a career crossroads. When his orchestra unexpectedly folds, he decides that he has gone as far as he can with his music. So, with the encouragement of wife Mika (Ryoko Hirosue, embuing her supporting role with enviable quirkiness), the pair leave Tokyo to return to the house Daigo inherited from his mother in his smalltown home. Looking for a job, he spots what appears to be the perfect employment but, finds that the job description which involves "working with departures" is not the travel agent's position he had hoped.

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Instead, it refers to the sort of departure from which there is no return - namely death. More specifically, his new boss (Tsutomu Yamazaki, stealing every scene he is in), is an encoffiner. This means he acts as a sort of conduit between death and the funeral, ritually preparing the body for cremation, ceremonially washing, dressing and applying make-up to the deceased in front of the family. Teething troubles - unexpectedly hilarious and touching in equal measure - aside, Daigo finds he has a flair for the job... the only problem being that, in Japan, there is a stigma attached to dealing with the dead and he daren't tell Mika the truth.

This description barely scratches the surface of the complex and character-driven plot, which also sees Daigo confronting unfinished emotional business with his absent father, while finding time to contemplate more universal concerns of mortality, the fundamental importance of grief and of coming to terms with who you are and what your expectations of life can be.

Like a finely worked piece of music, these themes are given space to find their own voice before coming together in a harmonious crescendo that brings with it emotional weight. A tune, however, is only as good as its orchestra, and here the acting is superb, particularly from Yamazaki and Masahiro Motoki, who offers measured comedy and subtle sadness as Daigo without slipping into caricature. Music itself plays a key role, throughout, with Joe Hisaishi's soulful scoring matching the film's lyricism note for note.

Although profound and, for that matter, profoundly moving in places, there is a playfulness to Takita's direction and Koyama finds plenty of deadpan humour in dealing with the dead. Never is this careful arrangement of romance, humour and desolation more evident than in a remarkable montage around two-thirds of the way through the film which manages to generate both laughter and tears within a short space.

Mixing humour and sadness, thoughtfulness and levity within a single film is a tricky manoeuvre. Get the mix wrong and the comedy can sit like a unpalatable slick on the surface of more meaningful issues or, conversely, attempts at careful consideration can slip into mawkishness or, worse still, become laughable. Get the alchemy right, however, and this sort of tender and engaging cinema is the result.

Reviewed on: 06 Dec 2009
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Departures packshot
A cellist comes to terms with love and loss after he switches professions to deal with the dead.
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Director: Yojiro Takita

Writer: Kundo Koyama

Starring: Masahiro Motoki, Tsutomu Yamazaki, Ryoko Hirosue, Kazuko Yoshiyuki, Kimiko Yo, Takashi Sasano, Tôru Minegishi, Tetta Sugimoto, Yukiko Tachibana, Tatsuo Yamada

Year: 2008

Runtime: 130 minutes

Country: Japan


Tribeca 2009

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