Don't you just hate spoilers? I do, too. That's why I always try to include warnings. However, I sometimes ramble a bit too much here or there and maybe a few (or many) key plot points slip without me giving proper notice. So I'd like to include a blanket spoiler warning for the weary internet travelers of the world: Here There Be Spoilers. You've been warned.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Departures (Okuribito)

This is going to sound extremely odd coming from me, but until very recently I had never seen a live-action Japanese movie. Not even any of the old Godzilla movies. I had seen a few Korean films, a few Chinese films, a few German films, and even a French film that I don't recommend unless you are a complete sicko like me, but I had never seen a Japanese live-action movie. Yeah, I've watched a shit-ton of Japanese cartoons, read some manga, read some translations of classic Japanese novels, listened to plenty of J-rock and some J-pop, but I had never seen a... Well, you know.

So Sunday night I set out to correct that. The tough thing was trying to figure out which movie to watch. There are a few I've had on my list for a while that are more in the horror vein, but I ultimately decided on Departures because I was in the mood for something a bit more laid back. 

True enough, Departures is a bit of a departure from anything else I'd seen before. This film is a very quiet and slow-moving one. It starts out really funny, but then gradually becomes a bit more dramatic until the final reveal at the end. Of course, the final reveal isn't an eye-opening shock or anything and if you are expecting one then shame on you. This isn't like that. 

This movie is about atmosphere and about one man's emotional journey doing a job that few others could want and even fewer could do well. And it's a really good movie at that. There's a reason it won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. 

Kobayashi Daigo was a professional cellist player in Tokyo until the orchestra he played in disbanded. Now without a job, Daigo sells his cello and he and his wife Mika move back to Sakata, Yamagata, where Daigo's mom had left him a house. Once back home Daigo begins looking for a new job and the one about "assisting departures" catches his eye. With thoughts of possibly traveling abroad in his head, Daigo immediately calls to set up an appointment. 

Unfortunately for Daigo, the ad was a bit of a misprint and Daigo is in a bit of a shock when he sees three coffins lined up on the wall at the office where he is to have his interview. After being hired on the spot after only one question, Daigo is now a mortician who will have to perform the process of "encoffining" if he wants to keep his job.

I said earlier that this movie started out funny and I meant it. Daigo's first job was one where he had to help prepare a two week old dead body. Naturally, he found it difficult to go anywhere near the body, but when he almost trips over a rotted banana and then starts gagging as he has to grab the body's legs... It's just as funny as it is gross. It gets funnier when the way home everyone on the bus starts moving away from him because he stinks so much. 

Then of course there's the DVD that Daigo and his boss makes where Daigo has to play the part of the dead person getting a piece of cotton shoved up his ass. That was hilarious even though that particular moment was during one of the more drama heavy moments of the movie. 

One thing I won't spoil for you is the opening scene. If that doesn't make you want to watch this movie then nothing will. It's probably the funniest moment in the whole movie. 

Of course, it isn't all a barrel of laughs. This film is ultimately about struggling to accept the turns of life and the inevitability of death. I didn't know this before, but death is apparently a very taboo subject in Japan and Takita Yōjirō, the director, was very worried about how this film would be accepted. I guess he knows the answer now, but he certainly wouldn't have had those fears in America because we love movies about death about as much as we love Little Debbies and American Idol.

The end of the film isn't a huge spoil, but it is engrossing and perfect just the same. It's also the first happy ending to an Eastern Asian movie I think I've ever seen. Go figure, considering the subject matter. 

Another thing I should mention is that the practice of "encoffining" as depicted in this movie isn't a widely used practice anymore. It's a historic practice used only in small towns where such traditional practices are still strictly observed. Kinda like marrying first cousins is still strictly observed in most southern US backwoods (although the "encoffining" practice is the much more dignified of the two). 

So I suppose this movie could be considered a bit of an anachronism. It's still really good, though. It's currently on Netflix and you could do worse than to watch it.

P.S. - Yes, this movie is over two hours long. That shouldn't put anyone off, but I still find myself being surprised about how some folks don't like "long" movies. Especially if the movies are "slow." 

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