- When the music's over: Masahiro Motoki plays for keeps.
What happens when a moderately talented cellist, working for an orchestra that goes belly up, returns to his hometown to live in the house his mother left him -- and ends up preparing bodies for burial?
Normally, in America, a sitcom would happen. But in this case, what happens is Departures, a gentle dramedy that won 10 Japanese film awards and the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. It's an enjoyable piece, though hardly a classic, and director Yojiro Takita keeps it sentimental and entertaining as he works through his ideas about love, loss, making amends and the passage of time, all of it rife with metaphor (fade from the crematorium incinerator to soaring birds).
The sad-sack hero of Departures is Daigo (Masahiro Motoki). He begins his life-altering passage when the owner of his orchestra -- for which Daigo bought a spiffy new cello that he couldn't afford -- comes backstage after a concert performed in a near-empty hall. "The orchestra ... is dissolved," the owner says, and then performs a very long, deep Japanese bow.
And that's that: Career over. Daigo goes home to his wife, who arrives with a fresh octopus for dinner. He breaks the news, and a moment later, hears a shriek from the kitchen. The octopus is still alive. They go to a pier to return it to nature, but when it hits the water, it just floats. They're too late: Life over.
Cut to the town where Daigo grew up, raised by his mother, abandoned by his father. The job in the paper says "departures," so he thinks it's a travel agency, but it should have said "the departed." He's hired after a one-sentence interview. ("Will you work hard?") On his first day on the job, his boss lends Daigo out as a model for a trade film about the Japanese "encoffining ceremony," in which you caress and wash a dead body, in front of the family, to ensure its peaceful transition to the spirit world.
What follows is a long lesson in both undertaking (all coffins, regardless of price, burn to the same ashes) and change of life. The cases Daigo handles are comic and tragic and grotesque, sort of like life itself. Departures opens with a brief flash forward in which Daigo performs the washing ceremony on a young woman -- the victim of an ignominious death, not unlike the octopus -- and discovers that she has a penis. The mother says to dress her as a woman just the same.
Quirks like this speckle Departures, and the cast performs them without exaggeration. A story of this sort made in America would require more black humor, and more bizarre cases. But for Japan -- a thanatophobic culture of equal parts modernity and tradition that seems to love its death rituals -- Takita probably gets the tone just right. In Japanese, with subtitles.
Starts Fri., July 31. Manor