When Yojiro Takita's Departures won the 2008 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, it was quite the underdog performance. First off, Departures upset the presumptive favorite, Israel's Waltz with Bashir. But perhaps more surprising, given the rich history of Japanese cinema, it also became the country's first victorious submission since the category opened to multiple entrants in 1956. (Foreign language achievement had previously been recognized only by honorary Oscars.) Akira Kurosawa brought home the Oscar in 1975 for Dersu Uzala, but not to Japan -- the submitting country was the Soviet Union in that case. The film that finally broke through contains numerous Oscar-worthy themes -- among them coping with death, estrangement from family, and spiritual renewal -- all leavened by a perfectly toned humor that keeps the proceedings from becoming morose.
However, a not-quite-dead octopus starts things off on quite a different note. Daigo (Masahiro Motoki), a hopeful cellist, and Mika (Ryoko Hirosue), his devoted wife, are supposed to be celebrating Daigo's position in the local orchestra. Not only is their prospective dinner still twitching, but Daigo tells Mika the news that his orchestra has suddenly folded -- and that his cello cost 18 times more than she'd thought. Returning the octopus to the water only to watch it float there limply, the couple leaves expensive Tokyo for the slower pace of Daigo's hometown with about as much enthusiasm. A new line of work ends up easier to come by than Daigo could have imagined, but not without a price -- he has unwittingly stumbled into work at the local mortuary. Before long, he's being paged in the middle of the night to collect dead bodies, and wearing away at Mika's patience. But while she finds his work repulsive and dishonorable, Daigo is rejuvenated by the ancient funeral rituals he's learning, designed to send the departed off to the afterworld in peace and harmony. Immersed in these episodes of overpowering loss, family strife, and sometimes transcendent gratitude, Daigo gains a new perspective on his own unresolved family life.
Takita's film is bursting with tiny pleasures, but none are more emblematic of his approach than the numerous minutes spent on preparing these bodies for their departure. This calm procedure of wrapping, folding, cleansing, perfuming, disrobing, re-robing, and purifying -- all chastely conducted in front of grieving family members -- is the film's fascinating recurring centerpiece, both fastidious to the point of tediousness and lovingly graceful. Takita is actively urging his viewers to slow down and absorb the importance of details, but his triumphant film cannot be reduced to one simple message. He's gotten terrific performances from his leads -- which also include Daigo's immediate co-workers (Tsutomu Yamazaki and Kimiko Yo) -- and uses them to create a film of lyrical beauty, in which a variety of poignant departures draw out the characters' understanding of the fragility of life and of their relationships. Takeshi Hamada's gorgeous camerawork brings this small, snowy town to life, even as it is the focal point for so much death. With Daigo's cello providing the soundtrack, Departures invites us to contemplate the intertwining of perceived opposites: life and death, ancient and modern, parent and child. No American film body need certify its pedigree, but an Oscar won't hurt in bringing this consummately Japanese experience to a wider audience.