"Departures": Death Can Be Nicer Than Taxes

in 20th Palm Springs International Film Festival

by Lisa Nesselson

Departures (Okuribito), in which a classical musician stumbles into another profession that strikes a chord, finds unexpected humor in the inevitability of death.

Although writer/director Yojiro Takita’s contemporary bittersweet comedy is deeply Japanese, it holds near-effortless rewards for audiences far from Asia. For those who put stock in prizes, it took the coveted Mercedes-Benz Audience Award at the 20th Palm Springs International Film Festival, scoring highest (on a 5-tiered scale of Poor-to-Superb) out of over 200 titles.

That might be because the predominantly older audiences at the desert fest are, actuarially speaking, closer to a custom appointment with the Grim Reaper than are moviegoers under 50. It might also be due to splendid acting in the service of a topic that, ahem, hasn’t been done to death: The profession of ‘nokanshi’, whose practitioners ready a corpse for cremation or burial. Performed well, the ritual creates an aura of peace and beauty, soothingly paving the way for the ashes to ashes, dust to dust portion of life.

The field may have all the glamour of emptying septic tanks or organizing group tours for India’s untouchables but, through the deft swabbing of cold flesh and the sleight-of-hand that encompasses everything from artful hair and make-up to the prevention of anal seepage, the film’s protagonist and his memorable mentor impart serenity where there is grief.

If I were in the blurb-writing business I might proclaim it “a rollicking funerary rites adventure in which the rigor of outsmarting rigor mortis meets the noble wisdom of vanishing customs.” Or I might insist “If you see only one old-woman-still-stubbornly-running-an-old-fashioned bath house dramedy this year, make sure it’s Departures.” Or I might chide “If you think today’s young Japanese are crass materialists deaf to the possibilities of taking pride in being shunned for handling the dead, then you haven’t seen the feel-good coffin comedy of the decade.”

Japan’s official entry for the Foreign Language Oscar establishes and sustains a mordant tone from the outset when we are introduced to Daigo (Masahiro Motoki). He and his boss Sasaki (Tsutomu Yamazaki) arrive, slightly late, at the home of a group of recently bereaved strangers. Takita knows his way around the anatomy of a gag. His deadpan take on death revels in local color and — dare I say it? — colorful locals.

Daigo, until recently, played the cello in an orchestra. Circumstances compel him to give up his instrument and move, with his adoring wife, from Tokyo to his village-like hometown. Once there he answers a want ad in the local paper.

I am reluctant to spell out additional particulars of the story as my pleasure in the film was enhanced by not knowing the first thing about it when I entered the theater.

Ah, but by the time I left the theater I felt I knew the characters (both dead and alive), knew a sliver more about Japanese culture and appreciated the finer points of making a dignified exit from sentience with the help of trained professionals.

This is the conundrum of encouraging potential viewers to seek out a given film. If I tell you what it’s “about,” I may inadvertently mislead you. After all, Frankenstein is also about a fellow and his assistant who handle dead bodies.

Departures also has angry villagers, but they are not hounding an aesthetically challenged harbinger of formaldehyde by torchlight. Still, Daigo’s fellow citizens think his livelihood is distasteful, at the intersection of ick and shame. We learn before they do that doing a riff on a stiff can have all the ineffable resonance of Keith Richards playing a particularly catchy solo.

It occurs to me that the field of film criticism sometimes calls for burials but that few films die a “natural” death or are respectfully laid to rest. Sometimes movies are swept away by epidemics of contempt or misunderstanding. Some perish of ridicule. They are carelessly or prematurely diagnosed as “flops” and carry a whiff of putrefying celluloid about them.

Others are rescued from the graveyard of neglect, resuscitated and pampered. As there are charitable organizations for so-called “orphaned diseases” — the ones that afflict so few people that there is no profit in finding a treatment or cure — so are there champions of films who may have parents but have made few friends in the marketplace.

And, of course, some of our fellow global-villagers believe that it is unseemly to dissect movies. Some of us critics are the little-loved custodians of ancient rituals, steeped in the belief that every film, however humble, deserves a proper send-off. Those of us most besotted believe that good movies never die.