Departures (Okuribito) Review
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Each year, during that point in the Oscar ceremony when the award for Best Foreign Language Film is given away, many viewers in this part of the world tend to zone out. Perhaps we’ve heard of one or two of the nominees, but there’s very little chance that we’ve actually had a chance to see any of them before the ceremony airs. And by the time the nominees finally (if ever) make it to North American theaters, that segment of the Oscar ceremony is little more than a hazy memory. If one of them does happen to make it to a theater near you, though, it’s almost always worth going out of your way to see it—and this year’s winner, the Japanese drama Departures (or Okuribito), is no exception.

Masahiro Motoki gives a moving performance as Daigo Kobayashi, a cellist who had finally realized his dream of playing in a Tokyo orchestra—just before the orchestra was dissolved. Convinced that he’ll never make it as a cellist, Daigo decides to sell his cello and move back to the small town where he grew up. His ever-supportive wife, Mika (Ryoko Hirosue), cheerfully goes along with the plan, packing up their lives and moving into the renovated bar that once belonged to Daigo’s late mother.

On his first day back in town, Daigo answers an ad for a job “working with departures.” But what he thinks is a job in a travel agency is actually a job in encoffinment—preparing corpses for burial. Desperate for a job, Daigo hesitantly agrees, though he’s careful to avoid discussing his work with Mika. But as he learns from his eccentric boss, Mr. Sasaki (Tsutomu Yamazaki), Daigo begins to take pride in his work—and it helps him begin to face the anger and hurt in his past.

Death is never an easy topic for a filmmaker to tackle—but Departures director Yôjirô Takita handles it with just the right amount of care and respect, resulting in a film that’s moving but not heavy, entertaining but not farcical. There are certainly times when you’ll laugh—especially as Daigo endures his first few awkward days on the job. But you’re just as certain to shed a tear or two in the film’s moving final scenes. It’s a well-balanced film, acted and directed with grace and sincerity.

Motoki is quietly but strikingly expressive as Daigo—a young man who’s dealing with death (and grieving) for the first time in his life. Though he doesn’t say much, he doesn’t have to. His facial expressions tell his story—and they also convey his reactions to the people around him. As he goes through the ritual of preparing the bodies of the recently deceased—carefully cleaning them, dressing them, and applying their favorite makeup—he learns just as much about the living. He witnesses the way in which people handle their grief: some respond with anger or blame, others with sorrow or regret, and still others with love and gratitude. Meanwhile, he keeps his own grief inside, refusing even to acknowledge it.

Though not all of the relationships and departures in Departures are handled flawlessly, this sweet and touching Oscar winner is a beautiful journey—an elegant and graceful drama that will linger on in your memory.

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