Monday, 13 June 2011

Departures(送り火と) Review


In the history of the Academy Award’s ‘Best Foreign Language Film’ category, Japan has never won the award. The likes of Akira Kurosawa and Hiroshi Teshigahara have been nominated, and have gained ‘Special/ Honorary Awards’, yet failed to gain the prestigious  title. However in 2009, Departures managed to beat stiff competition and succeed in the 81st Academy Award ceremony, to which many film critics were surprised. Yôjirô Takita, the director, has never really ‘exported’ his work to the audiences of ‘West’. His 2003 ‘When the Last Sword is Drawn’ was his last film targeting a larger crowd, and managed to gain a positive reception. However, he has tended to stick to his Japanese ‘routes’, with over-the-top, demonic samurai films, until 2008. In some regards, Takita took a huge risk in Departures. While death is seen as a very formal and almost ‘beautiful’ ceremony in the film, the reality is that it is a strong taboo in Japan. The director and the executives backing the feature, were worried at the reaction of its Japanese audience, not predicting the commercial and critical success it would become. In relation to a Western audience, it’s fascinating to see an aspect of Japanese culture that has never truly graced the screen. It’s a film that does justice to the subject matter, whilst encasing it in a realistic, emotional yet engrossing drama. 
The plot follows Daigo Kobayashi (Masahiro Matoki), as he finds himself unemployed after  the orchestra he plays cello for is dissolved. Therefore he takes the decision to move back to his hometown with his wife, and find work. Stumbling on an classified ad stating ‘Departures’, he believes that the opportunity is that of a travel agency. But, he soon finds out that it is for a position as a funeral ‘encoffineer’ (cleaning, and ceremonially preparing the deceased for the afterlife). It’s a profession that his wife, friends and the locals look down upon, yet Daigo finds a sense of pride, fulfilment and importance to his work. The story is a simple one, and doesn’t attempt to alter the characteristics or foundations of a drama piece. The unique essence of Departures is the subject matter, Nokanshi. Though the film is based on the solemn reality of death, Takita doesn’t try to overwhelm the audience with a constantly ‘depressive’ atmosphere. This somber crux is prevalent through the film, yet it is intertwined with an entertaining human drama. It takes a more ‘comical’ approach but still understands that it is a serious and heart-felt event in life. The first scene manages to do this brilliantly well. The formal nature of the ceremony and the despondent characters, mixed with the sorrowful score creates a really emotional scene. Yet, when Daigo finds out that the departed ‘girl’ has a ‘thing’, the music stops and the dialogue is awkward but humorous. This scene in particular manages to create the atmosphere and tone of which Departures is taking. 

The acting is great, and realistically played out. Masahiro Matoki is fantastic as our lead character, Daigo. We fully witness his initial anxiety at his new job and his embarrassment, leading to a gradual realisation and transformation in his personality. Matoki clearly prepared heavily for the part; he learnt to play the cello and studied the processes involved in Nokanshi, performing them on the screen. He manages to play his part with enough charm and earnestness, to convincingly portray the character, whilst adding humour. Tsutomu Yamazaki, who plays Daigo’s new boss, Sasaki, is perfectly cast and performs brilliantly. The stern exterior, but laid back personality of the character suits Yamazaki’s style of ‘deadpan humour’. However Ryōko Hirosue, who plays Daigo’s wife Mika, whilst charming feels too ‘childish’ to be convincing in her role. She performs well and a strong relationship is built between husband and wife. But she is somewhat lacking when compared to the other actors/ actresses. But overall the acting is superb and help transpire the story, and film’s tone. 

The cinematography heavily takes advantage of the sweeping vistas of the scenic landscape and setting. It also cleverly uses the changing imagery of the seasons, from the blossom of Spring, to the snowy-capped mountains of Winter, in order to complement the growing nature of the characters. Connected to the visual ‘personality’ of Departures is the musical essence of the film. With Daigo’s character playing the cello, orchestral pieces are constantly integrated into the scenes. Joe Hisaishi composes the score, and as usual, it’s fantastic. Flowing tones and emotional harmonies, create further passion and manage to portray the characters’ experiences and reactions well.
Overall Departures is an amazingly heart-warming drama, which deserves the global recognition and not the flack many have given it. Sure its predictable, and in some manner a little cliché. But it’s all done magnificently well, and better than half the tripe that is nominated for ‘Best Picture’. It explores a side of Japanese culture many haven’t witnessed, in an engrossing and respectful manner. Beautifully shot and superbly acted, its an emotional tale that doesn’t get too involved in ‘artsy’ sentimentality. Its definitely a great watch, and another fantastic export from Japanese cinema. 

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