Saturday, March 21, 2009

The Mixed Emotion of "Departures"

It was sort of an impromptu decision to watch "Departures".

Foreign movies do not usually appeal to me. I often find myself caught up with subtitle-reading and tend to miss out what I have paid for on the screen. "Departures" is a Japanese movie and it is one of the few exceptions.

Briefly, the movie talks about Daigo (Masahiro Motoki) who loses his job as a cellist in an orchestra in the city. He returns to his hometown and finds a job. When he realises that it is a job as an encoffiner, he struggles between the well-paid job and the acceptance from the others. He gradually finds meaning in his unusual occupation and so do his wife and friends.

I had the chance of watching a little trailer beforehand and I knew that the story centres around the Japanese ceremonial ritual of "Encoffination", a custom unique to the Japanese. Other than that, I knew nothing more.

I had some initial thoughts that the movie might reveal some gruesome footage of embalmment and what goes on behind the scene before the dead is respectfully placed in the coffin. I could only think of gross stuff (and I blame TV series like CSI).

As it turned out, the movie was a beautiful one.

The plot was simple. No twist, no turn and no climax. Compared to the other Japanese movie "
The 20th Century Boys" which has 200 characters, "Departures" has much fewer and therefore is easier to follow. Even though it has a linear story line with few characters, it is far from being boring.

The director, Yojiro Takita, has done a good job in moving the audience with subtle but touching messages. In a slow but captivating way, he tells the story of how Daigo finds what is the most important for him by facing people's death, including that of his father.

In each case, or rather each death, Daigo goes through the ritual before the family of the dead. There is hardly much difference in the way he performs the ritual except that each of those sub-plots tells me something through clever metaphors.

The movie made me laugh a lot. No, I am not being a sadist laughing at the dead. It is just that "Departures" is styled in the usual Japanese melodrama humor. I must say that it was a strange emotion wanting to cry amidst laughter.

"Departures" is the winner of the 81st Oscar for the "Foreign Language Film" category. Although it did not cause the same sensation as "
Slumdog", it did not move me any less.

The subject of "Life and Death" is never lighthearted. In our life time, we see many people around us leave this world and the sorrow within us is almost universal. At my work place, we have just recently lost a co-worker who succumbed to illness. The sense of loss is aching.

Ironically, one of the characters in "Departures", Toru Minegishi, who played father of Daigo in this film, passed away in Oct 2008, 6 months after we was diagnosed with lung cancer. That has sent an even deeper message on the unavoidability of the subject of death.

On the whole, "Departures" brings me more laughter than tears. It may not be the case for everyone as it has brought more tears to a guy seated next to me. He was sobbing intermittently and perhaps his annoying sniffs distracted me, making the movie less melancholy.

Finally, I would recommend that you watch it.

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