Rating: 8/10
Year: 2008
Genre: Drama
Director: Yojiro Takita
Cast: Masahiro Motoki, Tsutomu Yamazaki, Ryoko Hirosue, Kazuko Yoshiyuki, Kimiko Yo

2008 was a fruitful year for Japanese cinema, films like Tokyo Sonata and Still Walking have been winning awards and recognitions at numerous film award ceremonies around the world. Among them, veteran director Yojiro Takita's Departures reached the summit of this wave of commendation by bringing home the first Academy Award from the Americans since the mid 1950s.

Similar to a few other extraordinary Japanese films from 2008, Departures is a family drama focused on the life of an ordinary individual. Daigo (Masahiro Motoki) is a cellist working for a small orchestra. One day, the orchestra is dismissed and he is forced to relocate to his old hometown with his wife Mika (Ryoko Hirosue). Daigo soon finds a new job as an undertaker, but he is ashamed to tell his wife and friends about it. However, through his training with his boss Sasaki (Tsutomu Yamazaki), Daigo begins to reevaluate the meaning of life and his dedication to the job gradually wins the respect from the others...

The heyday of Japanese cinema was the 50s and 60s, that was the time when most of the masters like Akira Kurosawa were making their best films, and the soon to be masters to launch their career. Japanese films were regulars at the Academy Award in those years, with Rashomon winning the first Oscar in 1951, followed by Gate of Hell in 1954 and Miyamoto Musashi in 1955. After that, many Japanese films were able to enter as finalist, but none succeeded in winning the award. Furthermore, since the glorious days were gone, Japanese cinema was further and further away from Oscar, before the winning of Departures this year, the last time a Japanese film was nominated happened five years ago, and it was Yoji Yamada's Twilight Samurai. Therefore, in some senses, one shouldn't be too surprised by the hype and excitement of the domestic industry when they knew that the long awaited Oscar finally made its return to Japan, especially when the film prevailed over favorites like The Class, the Palme d'Or winner at Cannes in 2008, and the highly acclaimed animated documentary Waltz with Bashir.

Since the subject of Departures is the traditional undertaking business, which is usually perceived as an exotic attraction to the international audience, at first glance, the wide acceptance of the film among Western viewers might lead to the accusation that this is just another visual exploitation of a peculiar Asian culture. However, for those who have actually seen the film, they should realize that, luckily, this film absolutely doesn't fall into such category. Indeed it is a very simple yet powerful drama that attempts to explore the topic of family relationship and death, two universal themes that should be approachable and meaningful to any audience.

Japanese cinema is well known for its "obsession" with death. For instance, Sweet Rain from 2007 brings out different perspectives on the meaning of life and death through the interesting encounter of human and the Grim Reaper. Two of the best films from 2008, All Around Us and Still Walking, also talk about losses in the family. Other more mainstream and commercial works like Death Note show a keen interest in death as well. Beyond Japanese films, death is also a popular subject in Hong Kong cinema. Similar to Departures, independent film Fu Bo centers on a mortuary assistant and treat its subject in a solemn manner, while Troublesome Night 3, focusing on the undertaking business, simply borrows the element to tell a ghost story.

Unlike most of its counterparts, the strength of Departures is its sincere approach to explore the topic of family and death. There is no fancy and surrealistic storyline. No matter the characters or the setting, everything just looks genuine and honest. The director respects its subject, the characters express true emotions. Director Yojiro Takita has been in the business for about 30 years. He started his career making softcore porn films, and gradually made his way to the mainstream cinema. His previous works Onmyoji was both a critical and box office success, and The Last Sword is Drawn was a big winner at the Awards of the Japanese Academy. Even though his visual and narrative style shifts more to mainstream tastes, which is not as recognizable as most other Japanese cinema masters, his films, relying more on substance than style, do always maintain a comfortable flow and are welcome by the general audience. The style of Departures generally follows this trend, there isn't any particular remarkable scene, but the entire film just keeps its viewers engaged, and the feeling would remain long after they have seen it.

Without a wonderful cast, it is hard to imagine the success of this film. Lead male Masahiro Motoki's well calculated performance won him a deserved best actor award at the Asian Film Award ceremony. His skillful demonstrations of the cello and the undertaking ritual are definite proof of hard work. Playing his wife is Ryoko Hirosue, an idol turned actress who has showed great improvement in acting in the past few years. Veterans like Tsutomu Yamazaki and Kimiko Yo are excellent as usual and never disappoint.

Departures is without doubt the cream of Japanese cinema, and it is also the kind of film that can easily win the heart of the audience, but whether it's worth a Oscar is another question. To me, All Around Us is still the unbeatable champion of 2008 Japanese cinema, with Tokyo Sonata and Still Walking trailing behind, and Departures is probably good to take the fourth spot.

Cool guy(s) - Masahiro Motoki, Tsutomu Yamazaki

Reviewed by: Kantorates