The story of Daigo's journey is told in Departures, which pulled a big upset by beating out Waltz with Bashir and The Class for the Best Foreign Language Film award at this year's Oscars. From that strange, fascinating opening scene, director Yojiro Takita weaves a tale that is by turns odd, dryly funny, and deeply moving.
It also takes too long to get going and relies too heavily on voice-over narration; as is often the case with Japanese cinema, you have to choose to give yourself over to the storytelling style and the deliberate pace, which require some getting used to. I'll confess that there was a long stretch in the middle of the picture where I wasn't sure where it was going, if anywhere; there are scenes and episodes that seem extraneous, until they're calmly pulled together in the third act. But more on that later.
Daigo is a cellist in Tokyo who has to rethink his life when his orchestra is dissolved due to low attendance. In a bit of a desperation move, he and his wife (Ryoko Hirosue) move to the provincial home left to them by his late mother; he starts looking for work, and that's how he gets the job as an "encoffineer." Much of the material covering his hire and apprenticeship period is played for laughs--his interview with his boss-to-be (Tsutomu Yamazaki) is hilariously brief and pointed, and he spends his first day on the job playing a corpse in an instructional video, to great comic effect. The film's bone-dry wit reaches its apex with his first grisly visit to a dead woman's home ("That was a bit much for your first job," notes his boss, which is a bit of an understatement).
But he slowly learns the ropes, which we see primarily in an extended and effective sequence that respectfully observes the beauty of the ceremony, and how it moves a tough, angry husband into a raw display of emotion and grief. It's there that the film begins to hint at its Big Themes--life, death, love, loss, and so on--which are handled with intelligence and sensitivity.
As Daigo, Motoki occasionally overacts in the early, comic sections, but plays his more serious scenes with appropriate subtlety and naturalism. Hirosue is terrific as his wife; she's warm and likable, but shows a tougher side in the scene where she confronts him about his job (which he's been hiding from her), managing to convey both strength and fragility, seemingly at the same time. Yamazaki is appropriately wise and honorable.
Director Takita is, incidentally, a terrific visualist; his compositions have a marvelous symmetry, and a scene where Daigo plays his cello (melding into a series of childhood memories) has some knockout imagery. But what pulls the film together is Takita's mastery of tone, and his patience. Departures is a quiet, measured picture, somewhat clinical in its opening passages. But that gives way to the tremendous emotion of its closing sequences, and that final scene is a wrecker.
"Departures" hits DVD and Blu-ray on Tuesday, January 12th.