Pasteurized Symphony
by Tyson Kubota

Dir. Yojiro Takita, Japan, Regent Releasing

The premise of Departures, this year’s Oscar winner for Best Foreign-Language Film, is unintentionally relevant in light of the recent global economic meltdown and consequent occupational erosion. A recently unemployed cellist moves back to his rural hometown, young wife in tow, and stumbles into a job as an apprentice nokanshi—one who prepares the dead for cremation by washing and dressing them in the presence of the bereaved. This job unsettles his conservative, tradition-minded wife and friends, but he perseveres and finds meaning and hope in his work. The protagonist’s self-actualization might have had some resonance, but Departures fails to engage either as a sincere melodrama or an examination of death’s cultural position in Japanese society.

Apparently a project initiated by the 44-year-old lead actor Masahiro Motoki (originally a J-pop idol, and still known in fan circles by the diminutive “Mokkun”) and helmed by the journeyman director Yojiro Takita (beginning in “pink” films but moving in the Nineties to mainstream genre fare, including recent swordplay and fantasy films When the Last Sword Is Drawn and Onmyoji: The Yin Yang Master), Departures is written by a co-creator of the Food Network import staple Iron Chef, which should temper any expectations of emotional subtlety.

Playing Daigo, a yuppie uniformed in carefully tousled faux-hawk, scarf, and fitted shirt, Motoki strains credibility at every moment. He was effective as a pretentious doctor and his doppelganger in cult auteur Shinya Tsukamoto’s macabre Edogawa Rampo adaptation Gemini (1999), but his rubber-faced overacting in Departures (check out his double-take when the orchestra is dissolved, which you can also see in the trailer) is only outdone by Ryoko Hirosue as Motoki’s “web designer” wife, who apparently exists to cook and clean for her husband, provide some narratively mandated resistance to his new job, and then be impregnated, which spurs the couple’s de rigueur reconciliation and her validation of his career. This sort of regressive character—oppressively cheerful and completely lacking in interiority—is in keeping with the film’s transparent, predictable plotting. Meanwhile, it’s nice to see Tsutomu Yamazaki, a regular from Juzo Itami’s satires (including The Funeral, which tackles similar subject matter), as Motoki’s gruff mentor and Kazuko Yoshiyuki (from Nagisa Oshima’s Empire of Passion) as an elderly bathhouse owner, but these veteran supporting actors can’t overcome the blandness of the screenplay or compensate for Motoki’s hammy lead performance.

Aesthetically, the film is indifferently rendered, with unobtrusive camera movements and typical alternations of close-ups, static wide shots, and medium framings. Swooping crane shots of Motoki playing cello in a windswept field represent the absurd zenith of the film’s formal characteristics, as he sits on a stool framed by snow-capped mountains and performs the film’s main musical theme as part of a ridiculous “appreciate the pastoral beauty of Japan” montage. Joe Hisaishi’s insistent, string-loaded score is a mismatch, although an expected one, for this material. In the past, his music has made effective counterpoint for Beat Takeshi’s flat, abstracted framings and blunt, almost primitivist aesthetic (Kikujiro, Hana-bi), and has added grandeur to Hayao Miyazaki’s expansive animated fantasies like Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind and Princess Mononoke, but his work here merely glides on rails from one rote scene to the next.

This heavy-handed music is in keeping with the film’s broad sensibilities. As a specifically Japanese crowd-pleaser, Departures is unsurprisingly invested in affirming stereotypical ideas about village versus urban life, the sanctity of rural Japan and the wholesomeness of its people (there are no real villains in this story), presented through the lens of a quirky comedy with a range of broadly played character types. The intended symbolic affinity between Daigo’s two occupations becomes clear as he prepares corpses with the finesse and delicacy of playing a musical instrument, linking Daigo’s aesthetic appreciation of Western art forms with a renewed connection to traditional Japanese culture. Takita presents the performance of dressing bodies for burial as an orchestrated dance of gestures that shores up a sense of community and a collective belief in the necessity of social rituals.

It’s a lesson that Daigo’s wife obviously needs to learn. Ashamed of his work and irate that he kept it a secret from her, she insists that he quit his job and eventually leaves him alone in Yamagata. She returns weeks or months later with the perfunctory revelation “I’m pregnant!” followed shortly by her emotional about-face while watching Daigo prepare the body of the kindly local bathhouse owner. It’s an overly schematic treatment of the range of possible responses to an ostensibly taboo career; if Japan’s burakumin (outcast) class traditionally worked “unclean,” death-related jobs like butchery and leather tanning, Daigo’s work is presented unambiguously as a necessary and valuable profession for a smoothly functioning, harmonious society. Takita could have addressed these issues of cultural conflict more overtly, yet without significant narrative acknowledgement of the fear of burakumin (characters advise Daigo to choose a more “respectable” line of work, but nobody ever specifies why death-related jobs might be viewed with such suspicion) the film represents a missed opportunity to confront the ugly prejudice that clouds rural Japan—and also, by extension, the film’s Japanese audience.

Death in Departures generally serves either as an all-purpose character motivator—Daigo’s attempts in the final act to reconnect with his estranged father; Daigo’s wife’s acceptance of her husband’s choice of career—or an excuse for montages of various encoffinment ceremonies. To his credit, though, Takita does attempt to acknowledge some measure of cultural diversity by incorporating a range of bereaved families and deaths in the narrative—transsexual, Christian, well-to-do and biker riff-raff, etc. Also, there is some focus on depicting blue-collar “death industry” jobs, at least in the background—cremator, undertaker, etc. However, the cultural specificity of some of its plot points (especially the suspicion of jobs historically performed by outcasts) and sporadic attention to detail in the mise-en-scène belie the narrative’s completely generic emotional basis. Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s recent Tokyo Sonata has almost the inverse formal schema, handling broad situations—an unemployed father, a mother chafing over her family’s lack of communication, a son headed off to war—with an emotional and formal idiosyncrasy that crystallizes Kurosawa’s political and thematic intentions.

As the least political of this year’s Best Foreign-Language Film Oscar nominees (it beat The Class, Revanche, and Waltz with Bashir), and with no violence and virtually no profanity, Departures perhaps made for a predictable winner, but Japan’s victory in this category after a long Academy Awards absence (the only others are the special awards given in the early Fifties to Rashomon, Kinugasa’s Gate of Hell, and the first part of Hiroshi Inagaki’s Musashi trilogy) reveals the stark historical and practical gulf between then and now, and makes clear the increasingly homogenized fate of the Japanese studio system. In its banal narrative choices and workmanlike performances, plus its director’s career trajectory from “pink” films to middlebrow Oscar-export, Departures typifies the Japanese studio film of this decade, which reinforces the optimistic, small-town-values image that Japan wants to present to the outside world, while also seeking to refamiliarize Japanese viewers with aspects of their own monolithic “culture.” Given the foul climate in the outside world, Departures could have been useful both as a cultural examination of Japanese society and an affirmation of the importance of family and honest work, but instead this by-the-numbers weepie seems merely destined to join the ranks of forgotten foreign Oscar winners.