Departures (Okuribito) Movie Review
I finally got a chance to watch Departures (Okuribito) a few weeks ago and I highly recommend it. For those of you who haven't seen it, Departures is about Daigo (Masahiro Motoki), a cellist in a Tokyo based orchestra, who loses his job and returns to his home town with his wife Mika (Ryoko Hirosue) to become an encoffineer. It was directed by Yojiro Takita. I won't go into more plot details here because Wikipedia offers a pretty good summary.
Surprisingly, this is the first Japanese winner of the Academy Award For Best Foreign Language Film, since the award become permanent in 1956. It also upset Waltz with Bashir, which had widely been expected to win the award and is in my opinion a far more original movie. More surprisingly, Departures did extremely well at the Japanese box office, earning more than the equivalent of $60 million USD. The reason this second point is surprising is due to the subject matter of the film itself.
Death is always a difficult subject to deal with, no matter your racial or cultural background. And from my experience, this is epically true in Japan. Departures shows in great detail, the ceremony that can go into Japanese funeral arrangements. For those off you who don't know, ceremonies typically include (among many other things) putting chopsticks straight up in rice, which is why you should never do this at a restaurant because it is a reminder of funerals and death.
Moreover, people involved in the funeral industry are viewed as being unclean by Japanese society at large. Traditionally, this meant that people performing these tasks were separated from the rest of Japanese society and are collectively known as the the Burakumin. In the past, the Burakumin faced extreme discrimination in all aspects of their lives. This officially came to an end with the Meiji restoration, but even today, people from Burakumin backgrounds still face informal discrimination in the workplace and can find it more difficult to find marriage partners.
Departures touches on the issue of the taboo of performing funerals, but does not deal (at least as far as I could tell) with how this has related to the plight of the Burakumin. However, the fact that any Japanese movie, especially one with as much commercial success as Departures, has managed to tackle the issue of death and funerals head on is still impressive. More impressive still is the fact that it manages to do so with both tenderness and humour at the same time.
This is largely accomplished by the great cast who really make their characters come to life and feel totally real and believable. The real standout, besides Masahiro Motoki, is Tsutomu Yamazaki who plays Daigo's boss Shoei Sasaki. He comes across as being both mournful and humours often in the same scene and is perfectly cast as a fatherly figure for Daigo.
The other major highlight of the movie is its music and scenery. As you would expect, given that Daigo is cellist, there is a lot of cello music played throughout. I found it worked really well with the film as a whole because it can be both sad and uplifting depending on how it is played. The scenery is just beautiful and is a good reminder that most of Japan is not big cities, but rugged countryside.
The only real negative thing I have to say about the movie is that some of the character realizations and conversions seemed a bit too perfectly planned. For me it made the movie a little predictable, but doesn't detract anything from the many positives of the movie. Overall, I highly recommend you go see or at least rent Departures if you have the chance.
Still not sure? Then watch the trailer.