Departures (film)

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Departures
Okuribito (2008).jpg
Japanese release poster
Directed by Yōjirō Takita
Produced by
  • Yasuhiro Mase (executive producer)
  • Toshiaki Nakazawa (producer)
Written by Kundō Koyama
Starring
Music by Joe Hisaishi
Cinematography Takeshi Hamada
Edited by Akimasa Kawashima
Distributed by Shochiku
Release date(s)
  • 13 September 2008 (2008-09-13)
Running time 130 minutes
Country Japan
Language Japanese
Box office $69,932,387[1]

Departures (おくりびと Okuribito?, "one who sends off") is a 2008 Japanese drama film directed by Yōjirō Takita, and starring Masahiro Motoki, Ryōko Hirosue, and Tsutomu Yamazaki. Loosely based on Shinmon Aoki's memoir Coffinman, the film follows a young man who returns to his hometown after a failed career as a cellist and stumbles across work as a mortician (納棺師 nōkanshi?). He is the subject of prejudice from those around him, including from his wife, because of strong social taboos against people who deal with death. Eventually he earns respect and learns the importance of interpersonal connections through the beauty and dignity of his work.

Affected by having seen a funeral ceremony along the Ganges when travelling in India, a young Motoki returned to Japan and read widely on the subject of death. He came across Coffinman and felt that the story would adapt well to film. Departures was finished a decade later, but due to Japanese prejudices against those who handle the dead, distributors were reluctant to release it—until a surprise grand prize win at the Montreal World Film Festival in 2008. The following month the film opened in Japan and went on to win Japan Academy Prize for Picture of the Year and become the year's highest-grossing domestic film in Japan. This success was topped in 2009 when at the 81st Oscars it became the first Japanese film to win the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

Departures received mixed to positive reviews, with aggregator Rotten Tomatoes indicating an 81% approval rating from 102 reviews. Critics praised the film's humour, the beauty of the nōkan ceremony, and the quality of the acting, but took issue with its predictability and overt sentimentality. Reviewers highlighted a variety of themes, but focused mainly on the humanity which death brings to the surface and strengthens family bonds. The success of Departures led to increased interest in encoffining ceremonies and the development of a tourism industry based around the film, as well as adaptation of the story for various media, including a manga and stage play.

Plot[edit]

Daigo Kobayashi (Masahiro Motoki) loses his job as a cellist when his orchestra is disbanded. He and his wife Mika (Ryōko Hirosue) move from Tokyo to his hometown of Sakata, Yamagata, where they live in his childhood home, left to him when his mother died two years earlier. It is fronted by a coffee shop Daigo's father had run before running off with a waitress when Daigo was six; since then the two have had no contact. Daigo feels hatred towards his father and guilt over not taking better care of his mother. However, he still keeps a "letter-stone"—stones which are said to convey meaning through their texture—which his father had given him many years before.

Daigo finds an ad for a job "assisting departures". Assuming it to be a job in a travel agency, he goes to the interview at the NK Agent office and learns from the secretary Yuriko Kamimura (Kimiko Yo) that he will be preparing bodies for cremation in a ceremony known as encoffinment. Though reluctant, Daigo is hired on the spot and receives a cash advance from his new boss Sasaki (Tsutomu Yamazaki). Daigo is furtive about his duties and hides the true nature of the job from Mika.

Daigo's first assignment is to assist with the encoffinment of woman who died at home and remained undiscovered for two weeks. He is beset with nausea, and later humiliated when strangers on the bus detect an unsavory scent on him. To clean himself, he visits a public bath which he had frequented as a child; the owner, Tsuyako Yamashita (Kazuko Yoshiyuki), is the mother of an old classmate (Tetta Sugimoto) of Daigo's.

Over time, Daigo becomes comfortable with his profession as he completes a number of assignments and experiences the gratitude of the families of the deceased. However, he faces social ostracism. When Mika discovers a training DVD in which Daigo plays a corpse and he refuses to quit the "disgusting profession", she returns to her parents' home in Tokyo. Elsewhere, Daigo's old classmate Yamashita insists that Daigo avoid his family until he can find a more respectable line of work.

After a few months, Mika returns and announces that she is pregnant. She expresses hope that Daigo will find a job of which their child can be proud. While they argue, Daigo receives a call for an encoffinment for Mrs Yamashita. Daigo prepares her body in front of the Yamashita family and Mika, who had the public bath owner. The ritual earns him the respect of all present, and Mika stops insisting that Daigo change jobs.

Some time later, the couple learn of the death of Daigo's father. A reluctant Daigo goes with Mika to another village to see the body. Daigo is at first unable to recognize him, but takes offence when local funeral workers are careless with the body. He insists on dressing it himself, and while doing so finds a stone-letter which he had given to his father, held tight in the dead man's hands. The childhood memory of his father's face returns to him, and after he finishes the ceremony, Daigo gently presses the stone-letter to Mika's pregnant belly.

Production[edit]

Cultural background[edit]

An altar at a Japanese funeral; such rituals are generally conducted according to Buddhist rites.

Japanese funerals are highly ritualized affairs which are generally—though not always—conducted in accordance with Buddhist rites.[2] In preparation for the funeral, the body is washed and the orifices are blocked with cotton or gauze. The encoffining ritual (called a nōkan), as in Departures, is rarely performed, and even then generally in rural areas.[3] In this ceremony, professional morticians (納棺師 nōkanshi?)[a] ritually prepare the body. The deceased is dressed in white, and makeup may be applied. The body is then put on dry ice in a casket, followed by personal items and items necessary for the trip to the afterlife.[4]

Despite the importance of death rituals, the subject is considered unclean as all which is related to death is considered a source of kegare (defilement). After coming into contact with the dead individuals must purify themselves through purifying rituals.[5] Persons who work closely with the deceased, such as morticians, are thus considered unclean, and during the feudal era those whose work was related to death became untouchables, forced to live in their own hamlets and discriminated against by wider society. Despite a cultural shift since the Meiji Restoration, the stigma of death still has considerable force within Japanese society.[6]

Until 1972, most deaths were dealt with by families, funeral homes, or nōkanshi. As of 2014, eight-tenths of deaths have come to occur in hospitals, and preparation of the bodies is frequently done by hospital staff; in such cases, the family often does not see the body until the funeral.[7] A 1998 survey found that 29.5% of the Japanese population believed in an afterlife, and a further 40% wanted to believe; belief was highest among the young. Belief in the existence of a soul (54%) and a connection between the worlds of the living and the dead (64.9%) was likewise common.[8]

Conception and preproduction[edit]

In the early 1990s, a 27-year-old Motoki and his friend travelled to India; just before going, at the friend's recommendation he read Shin'ya Fujiwara' Memento Mori (Latin for "remember that you will die").[9] While in India, he visited Varanasi. There, he witnessed a ceremony in which the dead was cremated and the ashes were floated down the Ganges.[10] Motoki said that, while in India, he was deeply affected by this ceremony of death against a backdrop of bustling crowds going about their lives.[9] Upon returning to Japan he devoured numerous books on the subject of death, and in 1993 wrote a book on the relation of life and death: Tenkuu Seiza—Hill Heaven.[b][11] Among the books he read Motoki came across Aoki Shinmon (ja)'s[c] autobiographical book Coffinman: The Journal of a Buddhist Mortician (納棺夫日記 Nōkanfu Nikki?), which exposed Motoki to the world of the nōkanshi for the first time. Motoki said he found a mysteriousness and near-eroticism to the profession that he felt had an affinity with film world.[d][12]

Getting funding for the project was difficult owing to the taboos against death, and the crew had to approach several companies before Departures was greenlit by Toshiaki Nakazawa and Yasuhiro Mase of Shochiku.[13] Kundō Koyama (ja) was enlisted to provide the script, his first for a feature film; his previous experience had been in scripting for television and production.[14] Koyama also provided the title.[15] Yōjirō Takita, a director who had begun his career in the exploitation pink film genre before entering mainstream filmmaking in 1986 with Comic Magazine,[e] took on the director's role in 2006, after producer Toshiaki Nakazawa presented him with the first draft of the script.[16] In a later interview he stated "I wanted to make a film from the perspective of a person who deals with something so universal and yet is looked down upon, and even discriminated against".[17] Although he knew of the encoffining ceremony, he had never seen one performed.[3]

Production of Departures took ten years, and the work which was ultimately only loosely adapted from Coffinman.[18] Although the religious aspects of funerals were an important aspect of the source work, the film did not include them. This, together with the fact that filming was completed in Yamagata and not his hometown of Toyama, led to tensions between the production staff and author. Aoki expressed concern that the film was ultimately unable to address "the ultimate fate of the dead", and later reportedly refused permission for Departures to use the Coffinman title.[19] The first edition of the book was broken into three parts; the third, "Light and Life", was an essay-like Buddhist musing on life and death that is absent from the film.[20] After seeing the script, he rejected having his name and book title used in the film, as the its humanistic approach did away with the religious aspects that he felt were central to the book—the emphasis on maintaining connections between the living and the dead that he felt only religion could provide.[21]

While the book and film share the same premise, the details differ considerably.[22] Both feature a protagonist who endures uneasiness and prejudice of his being a nōkanshi;[21] both have a theme of an individual who undergoes personal growth as a result of his experiences and, confronted with death, finds new meaning in life.[23] In both, the main character deals with societal prejudices and misunderstandings over his profession.[24] In Coffinman, the protagonist was the owner of a pub-café that had gone out of business; during a domestic squabble his wife threw a newspaper at him, inside which he found the ad for the nōkanshi position.[25] He finds pride in his work for the first time when dealing with the body of a former girlfriend.[24] Aoki put particular emphasis on the "light" seen when one perceived the integration of life and death.[21] Koyama had wanted cello orchestration for the film score, and from that sprang the idea of making the protagonist a cellist.[26] Other differences included moving the setting for filming convenience from Toyoma to Yamagata, moving the "letter-stone" from a subplot to a main motif,[27] and an avoidance of heavier scenes, such as religious ones or one in which Aoki talks of seeing "light" in a swarm of maggots.[21]

Filming and post-production[edit]

Motoki, by then in his early 40s and having built a reputation as a realist, was cast as Daigo.[f][28] Veteran actor Tsutomu Yamazaki was selected for the role of Sasaki;[29] Takita had worked before with Yamazaki on We Are Not Alone (1993).[30] Although the character of Mika was initially envisioned as being the same age as Daigo, pop singer Ryōko Hirosue, who had previously acted in Takita's Himitsu (Secret) in 1999.[g] Takita explained that the casting of a younger actress allowed the lead couple's growth out of naivety to be better represented.[29] In a 2009 interview, Takita stated that he had cast "everyone who was on my wish list".[31]

Motoki studied the art of encoffinment first-hand from a mortician, and assisted in an encoffining ceremony; he later stated that the experience imbued him with "a sense of mission ... to try to use as much human warmth as I could to restore [the deceased] to a lifelike presence for presentation to her family".[32] Motoki then drilled himself by practising on his manager until he felt he had mastered the procedure, one whose intricate, delicate movements he compared to those of the Japanese tea ceremony.[33] Takita attended funeral ceremonies to understand the feelings of bereaved families, while Yamazaki never participated in the encoffinment training.[34] Motoki also learned how to play a cello for the earlier parts of the film.[35]

To provide realistic bodies while preventing the corpses from moving, after a lengthy casting process the crew chose extras who could lay as still as possible. For the bath house owner Tsuyako Yamashita, this was not possible owing to the need to see her alive first, and a search for body doubles was unfruitful. Ultimately, the crew used digital effects to transplant a still image of the actor, allowing for a realistic effect.[31]

A former restaurant was used as the location of the NK Agent office.

The non-profit organization Sakata Location Box was established up in December 2007 to handle on-location matters such as finding extras and negotiating locations. After Sakata was decided on, Location Box staff had two months to prepare for the eighty members of the film crew.[36] Negotiations were slow, as many local property owners were reluctant to when they learned the filming would involve funeral scenes, and those who agreed insisted on filming taking place outside of business hours.[37]

Toyama was both the setting of Coffinman and Takita's home prefecture, but filming was done in Yamagata; this was largely because the national Nōkan Association, headquartered in Hokkaido, had a branch office in Sakata.[38] Some preliminary scenes of snowy landscapes were shot in 2007, and primary filming was from April 2008, lasting 40 days.[39] Locations included Kaminoyama, Sakata, Tsuruoka, Yuza, and Amarume.[40] The NK Agent office was filmed in a three-story, Western-style building in Sakata built between the mid-Meiji and Taishō periods. Originally a restaurant named Kappō Obata, it went out of business in 1998.[41] The Kobayashis' café, called Concerto in the film, was located in Kaminoyama in a former beauty salon. From a hundred candidates, Takita chose it for its atmosphere as an aged building with a clear view of the nearby river and surrounding mountain range.[42] The scene of shooting of the training DVD took place in the Sakata Minato-za (ja), Yamagata's first movie theatre, built in 1910 and closed in 2002.[43]

From the beginning an international release of the film was intended; as English is considered a key language in international film festivals, English subtitles were added to these releases. The translation was handled by Ian MacDougall.[44] He believed that the workings of a mortician's world were as far from the experience of most Japanese as from that of a non-Japanese audience. As such he felt a faithful translation was best, without going far to accommodate foreign audiences to unfamiliar cross-cultural elements.[45] The soundtrack to Departures was prepared by Joe Hisaishi, a composer who gained international recognition for his work with Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli. Owing to the importance of cellos and cello music in the narrative, Hisaishi emphasised the instrument in his soundtrack. He found this challenging.[46]

Upon completion, Takita declared Departures "perfect", and praised the crew for their self-reliance in developing the content and the humble, "hand-made" quality of the film. That the film's initial success depended largely on word-of-mouth was also a source of pride for the director.[47] Coffinman author Shinmon Aoki, praised Motoki's performance and the film's ability to show the importance of family and interpersonal connections, despite his disappointment at the dropping of the story's religious aspect,[21]

Style[edit]

Symbolism has been found in the film's use of cherry blossoms.

A montage in which scenes of Daigo playing his childhood cello while sitting outdoors are interspersed with scenes of encoffining ceremonies, has drawn further discussion. Byrnes found it to be a case of the director increasing the emotional charge of the film,[48] and Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times considered it a "beautiful fantasy scene" through which the camera is "granted sudden freedom" from the generally standard shots.[49] Leigh Paatsch of the Herald Sun had a more negative view, questioning the need for the shot.[50] Throughout the film's soundtrack, cello music remains dominant.[51] Yakita drew parallels between the instrument and the encoffining ceremony, stating that

"... ironically, there is something similar between the process of encoffinment and the act of playing the cello. When you play the cello, the instrument has a human, curvaceous form. The cellist embraces that form when playing the instrument, very loving, affectionate. That's very similar, physically, to the actions of the encoffiner, cradling the body, being tender and gentle with it."[52]

Paul Byrnes of The Sydney Morning Herald found that Departures used the symbol of the cherry blossom, a flower which blooms after the winter only to wither soon afterwards, to represent the transience of life; by understanding this transience, he writes, Japanese people attempt to define their own existence. Natural symbols are further presented through the changing seasons, which are "suggest delicate emotional changes" in the characters.[48] The film's settings are used to convey various senses, including the solitude of the countryside and the intimacy of the public bath house.[53]

Departures incorporates aspects of humour, an "unexpected" compliment to the theme of death which Ebert suggested may be to mask the audience's fears.[54] Through this use of humour, Betsy Sharkey of the Los Angeles Times opines, the film avoids becoming too dark and instead acts as a "warmhearted blend" of whimsy and irony.[55] This humour manifests in a variety of manners, such as a scene in which "a mortified Daigo, naked except for a pair of adult diapers, is the reluctant model" for an educational video regarding the encoffining process, as well as a scene in which Daigo discovers that the person he is preparing is a trans woman.[56] Takita stated that the addition of humour was deliberate, as "humans are comical by nature", and as such the humour did not conflict with the film's darker themes.[17]

Themes[edit]

As they are the movie's "central dramatic piece", the encoffining ceremonies in Departures have received extensive commentary.[48] Mike Scott, for instance, wrote in The Times-Picayune that these scenes were beautiful yet heartbreaking at the same time, and Nicholas Barber of The Independent described them as "elegant and dignified".[57] James Adams of The Globe and Mail wrote that they were a "dignified ritual of calming, hypnotic grace, with sleights of hand bordering on the magicianly".[51] As the film continues, Byrnes opined, the audience gains an improved knowledge of it and its importance.[48] Viewers see that the ceremonies are not simply about preparing the body, but also about "bring[ing] dignity to death, respect to the deceased and solace to those who grieve", through which the encoffiners are able to help repair broken family ties and heal damage done to those left behind.[55][h]

Scott highlighted the contrast between the taboo of death and jobs related to it. He also noted the role of the encoffiner in showing "one last act of compassion" by presenting the deceased in a way which preserved proud memories of their life.[58] Initially, Daigo and his family are unable to overcome the taboos and their squeamishness when faced with death. Daigo is alienated by his wife and friends owing to traditional values.[53] Ultimately, however, it is through his work with the dead that Daigo finds life fulfilment, and, as Peter Howell of the Toronto Star concluded, viewers realize that "death may be the termination of a life, but it's not the end of humanity".[53] While the film's theme is death, Takita believed Okuribito was about life, about finding a lost sense of feeling human.[25] Ultimately, Daigo gains a greater perspective on life and comes to know the diversity of people's lives only after encountering them after death.[59]

The film emphasizes family bonds; Daigo's coming to terms with his father is a major motif, encoffinment scenes focus on the living family members rather than the dead, and even in the NK Agent office conversation often revolves around family issues. Mika's pregnancy is the catalyst toward her and Daigo's reconciliation.[21] As with other Japanese films, such as Tokyo Story (Yasujirō Ozu; 1953) and The Funeral (Juzo Itami; 1984), the film focuses on the effect of death on the survivors; the afterlife is not given much discussion.[60] Ebert wrote that this is indicative of a "deep and unsensational acceptance of death" in Japanese culture, one which is to be met not with extreme sorrow, but with contemplation.[61] The A.V. Club's Keith Phipps similarly noted a message in Departures that individuals should "savor" their life.[62] Takita stated that he intended to focus on the "dialogue between people who have passed away and the families that survive them".[17]

Byrnes found that Departures leads one to question the extent of modernity's effect on Japanese culture, noting the undercurrent of "traditional attitudes and values" which permeated the film. The film explains that, although traditionally completed by the family of the deceased, a decreased lack of interest in completing the ceremonies opened a "niche market" for professional encoffiners.[48]

Release[edit]

The taboo subject of Departures made prospective distributors wary of taking on the film.[63] Surveys conducted at pre-release screenings placed it at the bottom of the list of films audiences wanted to see.[63] Ultimately, the film debuted at the Montreal World Film Festival in August 2008 and was lauded with the festival's grand prize. This provided the necessary incentive for distributors to choose Departures, which finally received its domestic Japanese release on 13 September 2008.[64] Even then, owing to the strong taboo against death, Takita was worried about the film's reception and did not anticipate commercial success, and others expressed concern that the film lacked a clear target audience.[65]

This fear was misplaced; Departures debuted in Japan at fifth place, and at the fifth week of its run hit its peak position at third place.[63] It sold 2.6 million tickets in Japan and generated ¥3.2 billion ($32 million) in box office revenue in the five months after its debut.[66] The film was still showing in 31 theatres when its success at the Academy Awards in February 2009 renewed interest, increasing the number of screens to 188 and allowing the film to earn another ¥2.8 billion ($28 million), for a total of ¥6 billion ($60 million). This made Departures the highest-grossing domestic film and 15th top-grossing film overall for 2008.[67] Executive producer Yasuhiro Mase credited this success to the effects of the Great Recession on Japan: viewers were "looking for work after being restructured out of a job", as with Daigo.[68]

In September 2008, ContentFilm acquired rights to the Departures, which by that time had been licensed for screening in such countries as Greece, Australia, and Malaysia; the film was ultimately screened in 36 countries.[69] North America distribution was handled by Regent Releasing, and Departures received a limited release in nine theatres beginning on 29 May 2009. Overall, the film earned almost $1.5 million during its North American run before closing on 24 June 2010.[1] In the United Kingdom, Departures premiered on 4 December 2009 and was distributed by Arrow Film Distributors.[70] The film attained a worldwide gross of nearly $70 million.[71]

Adaptations and other media[edit]

Before Departures premiered, a manga adaptation by Akira Sasō was serialized in twelve instalments in the bi-weekly Big Comic Superior, from February to August 2008. Sasō agreed to take on the adaptation as he was impressed by the script. He had the opportunity to view the film before beginning the adaptation, and came to feel that a too-literal adaptation would not be proper. He made changes to the settings and physical appearances of the characters,and increased focus on the role of music in the story.[72] Later in 2008 the serial was compiled in a 280-page volume released by Shogakukan.[73]

On 10 September 2008, three days before the Japanese premiere of Departures, a soundtrack album for the film was released by Universal Music Japan. It contained nineteen tracks from the film and featured an orchestral performance by thirteen members of the Tokyo Metropolitan and NHK Symphony Orchestras.[74] Pop singer Ai provided lyrics to music by Hisaishi the "image song" Okuribito/So Special. Performed by Ai with an arrangement for cellos and orchestra, the single was released by Universal Sigma (ja) as a single on 10 September 2008 along with a promotional video.[75] Sheet music for the film's soundtrack was published by KMP in 2008 (for cello and piano) and Onkyō in 2009 (for cello, violin, and piano).[76]

Shinobu Momose, a writer specializing in novelizations, penned a novel adaptation of Departures. It was published by Shogakukan in 2008. That year the company also released Ishibumi[i] (Letter-Stone), an illustrated book on the themes of the movie told from the point of view of a talking stone; this book was written by Koyama and illustrated by Seitarō Kurota.[77] The following year saw a published edition the first draft of Koyama's screenplay from Shogakukan.[78]

A stage version, also titled Departures, was written by Koyama and directed by Takita. It starred kabuki actor Nakamura Kankurō as Daigo and Rena Tanaka as Mika[79] when it debuted at Akasaka ACT Theater (ja) on 29 May 2010.[80] The story, set seven years after the close of the film, concerns the insecurities of the couple's son over Daigo's profession.[79]

Home releases[edit]

A dual-layer DVD release appeared in Japan 18 March 2009, and included a collection of trailers and videos of the film's making and of an encoffining ceremony.[81] A DVD edition of Departures was released in North America by Koch Vision on 12 January 2010. It featured Japanese audio, with English subtitles, as well as an interview with the director. A Blue-ray edition followed in May.[82] This home release received mixed reviews. Franck Tabouring of DVD Verdict was highly positive of the film and the digital transfer, considering its visuals clean and sharp and the audio (particularly the music) "a pleasure to listen to".[83] Thomas Spurlin, writing for DVD Talk, rated the release as "Highly Recommended", focusing on the "unexpected powerhouse" of a film's quality.[84] Another writer for the website, Jeremy Mathews, advised readers to "Skip It", finding the DVD an apt presentation of the source material—which he considered to "reduce itself to clumsy, mug-filled attempts at broad comedy and awkward, repetitive tear-jerker scenes".[85] Both DVD Talk reviews, however, agreed that the audio and visual quality were less than perfect, and that the DVD's extra contents were lacking; Mathews described the interview as the director answering "dull questions in a dull manner".[86]

Reception[edit]

Reviews[edit]

Departures received mixed-to-positive reviews from critics. Based on 102 reviews collected by the aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, the film received an 81% approval rating from critics, with an average score of 7.0/10[87] and a 68/100 on the aggregator Metacritic.[88]

Domestic reviews[edit]

Initital reviews in Japan were positive. In Kinema Junpo, Tokitoshi Shioda called Departures a turning point in Takita's career, a human drama capturing both laughter and tears,[89] while in the same publication Masaaki Nomura the film a work of supple depth that perhaps indicates a move into Takita's mature period, praising Takita for capturing a human feeling from Motoki's earnest encoffining performance.[90] Writing in the Yomiuri Shimbun, Seichi Fukunaga praised Takita for using a moving, emotive story laden with humour to reverse prejudice against a taboo subject. Fukunaga commended the performances of Motoki and Yamazaki, particularly the two playing the serious Daigo against the befuddled Sasaki.[91] In the Asahi Shimbun, Sadao Yamane found the film admirably put together. He praised the actors' performances, and found Motoki's heartwarming. Yamane was especially impressed by the delicate hand movements when Motoki performed the encoffinment ceremony.[92]

Tomomi Katsuta in the Mainichi Shimbun found Departures a meaningful story that makes the viewer think about the different lives people live, and the significance of someone dying. At the same paper, Takashi Suzuki thought the film memorable but predictable, and Yūji Takahashi thought the film's ability to find nobility a prejudiced subject was an excellent accomplishment.[93] Shōko Watanabe gave Departures four out of five stars in the Nihon Keizai Shimbun, praising the actors' unforced performances.[94]

Following the success of Departures at the Academy Awards, critic Saburō Kawamoto believed the film showed a Japan that Japanese could relate to, in that, in a nation whose customs put great weight on hakamairi, a death was always a family affair. He believed the film had a samurai beauty to it with its many scenes of families sitting seiza.[21] Tadao Sato believed the film's unusually non-bitter treatment of death demonstrated an evolution in Japanese feelings about life and death. He saw the film's treatment of nōkan as an artistic rather than religious thing as reflecting the agnostic attitudes of modern Japan, and that perhaps the film's worldwide success shows that the rest of the world may be beginning to follow that sentiment.[21]

Film critic Yūichi Maeda (ja) game the film a 90% rating, and credited the performances of Departures's two leads for much of the film's success. He praised its emotional impact, in particular the final turnaround from the exaggerated disgust toward the protagonist's work, and the film's balance of seriousness and humour. He was more critical of the father–son relationship, which he considered overdone. Maeda saw the film's international success, despite the film's so-Japanese content, to it having so clearly depicted Japanese views on life and death. He found the film's conceptual scale to have an affinity to that of Hollywood, and saw this as a strength of the film lacking in most Japanese films.[95]

Reviewer Takurō Yamaguchi gave the film an 85% rating, and found the treatment of its subject charming, and praised its quiet emotional impact and humour, the interweaving of northern Japan scenery with Hisaishi's cello score, and the film's Japanese spirit.[96] Media critic Sadao Yamane (ja) found a moving beauty in the dextrous hand movements Sasaki teaches Daigo for preparing bodies, and considers a prior reading of the original script to deepen the viewer's understanding of the action.[97] Mark Schilling of The Japan Times gave the film four stars out of five. He praised the acting, particularly that by Motoki, who he wrote had given "the performance of his long career", although he found that the film tended to idealize the encoffiners. He concluded that the film "makes a good case for the Japanese way of death."[98]

International reviews[edit]

The score by Joe Hisaishi was highlighted by several reviewers.

Internationally, Departures has received mixed—trending positive—reviews. Ebert gave the film a perfect four stars,[61] describing it as "rock-solid in its fundamentals".[49] He highlighted the film's cinematography (which he judged as "polite" and with "the decorum of a mourner at a funeral"), music, and the casting of Yamazaki as Sasaki, and wrote that the end result was a film that "functions flawlessly" and was "excellent at achieving the universal ends of narrative".[49] Derek Armstrong of AllMovie gave the film four stars out of five, describing it as "a film of lyrical beauty" which is "bursting with tiny pleasures"; as with Ebert, he emphasised the film's cinematography, acting and music.[99] In a four-star review, Byrnes described the film as a "moving meditation on the transience of life" which showed "great humanity" and was at once understated and pushed emotions across. He concluded "it's a beautiful film but take two hankies."[48] Howell gave the film three stars out of four, praising its acting and cinematography. He opined that Departures "quietly subverts aesthetic and emotional expectations" without ever losing its "high-minded intent".[53]

In a three-and-a-half star review, Claudia Puig of USA Today described Departures as a "beautifully composed" film, with a gorgeous score and painterly visuals. Despite the work's predictability, she found it "emotional, poignant" and "profoundly affecting".[100] Philip French of The Observer considered Departures to be a "moving, gently amusing" film, which the director had "fastidiously composed".[101] Sharkey found Departures an "emotionally wrenching trip with a quiet man", one which was well-cast with "actors who move lightly, gracefully" in the various settings.[55] In Entertainment Weekly, Owen Gleiberman gave the film a B−, considering it "tender and, at times, rather squishy" though certain to affect anyone who had lost a parent.[102] Barber found Departures to be "heartfelt, unpretentious, [and] slyly funny", worth watching though ultimately predictable.[103] Mike Scott gave the film three and a half stars out of four, finding that it was "a surprisingly uplifting examination of life and loss", with humour which perfectly complimented the "moving and meaningful story" story; he found, however, that Departures "crosses the line from sentimental to hokey" on occasion, and the tendency for characters to "mug for the camera" during humorous scenes.[58]

Meanwhile, Kevin Maher of The Times described Departures as a "verklempt comedy" with wearisome "push-button crying", though he considered it saved by the quality of the acting, "stately" directing, and "dreamy" soundtrack.[104] Another mixed review was published in The Daily Telegraph, which described the film a "safe and emotionally generous crowd-pleaser", though not worthy of its Academy Award.[105] Philip Kennicott wrote in The Washington Post that the film was "as polished as it is heavy-handed", predictable yet ready to break taboos, immersed in death yet incapable of escaping "the maddening Japanese taste for sentimentality".[106] In Variety, Eddie Cockrell wrote that the film offered "fascinating glimpses" of the encoffining ceremony—scenes of which he described as the best part of the movie—as well as good music and acting. He wrote, however, that the conclusion could have been trimmed, and took issue with the director's emotional manipulation of the audience.[107]

Paatsch gave Departures three stars out of five, describing it as a "quaintly mournful flick" that "unfolds with a delicacy and precision that slowly captivates the viewer" but considering some scenes, such as the montage, "needlessly showy flourishes".[50] Edward Porter of The Sunday Times wrote a negative review in which he described Departures as a film with conventional themes but an "unusual occupation for the hero"; the film's success at the Academy Awards he credited to "a case of the Academy favouring bland sentimentality".[108] Adams gave the film two out of four stars, describing it as having emotionally and visually arresting scenes of encoffinments and a "loving attention to the textures, tastes and behaviours of semi-rural Japan" but ultimately so predictable that "Forty-five minutes in, [viewers have] prepared a mental checklist of every turn that Daigo Kobayashi will face, then negotiate - and be danged if Takita doesn't deliver on every one".[51]

Phipps gave the film a C−, writing that though it featured "handsome shots of provincial life" and encoffining scenes with a "poetic quality", ultimately the film "drips from one overstated emotion to the next"; he concluded that audiences should not waste life "pat manipulations like [Departures]."[62] A. O. Scott wrote in the The New York Times that the film was "perfectly mediocre", predictable, and banal in its combination of humour and melodrama. Despite its sometimes touching moments, he considered Departures "interesting mainly as an index of the Academy’s hopelessly timid and conventional tastes".[109]

Awards[edit]

At the 32nd Japan Academy Prize ceremony, held in February 2009, Departures dominated the competition, receiving a total of thirteen nominations and winning ten, including Picture of the Year, Screenplay of the Year (Kundō Koyama), Director of the Year (Takita), and Outstanding Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role (Motoki).[110] In the Outstanding Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role category, Hirosue lost to Tae Kimura of Gururi no koto, while in the Outstanding Achievement in Art Direction category Departures's Tomio Ogawa lost to Paco and the Magical Book's Towako Kuwashima. Hisaishi, nominated for two Outstanding Achievement in Music awards, won for his scoring of Studio Ghibli's animated film Ponyo.[46] In response to the wins, Motoki said "It feels as if everything miraculously came together in balance this time with Okuribito".[46][j]

Departures was submitted to the 81st Academy Awards as Japan's submission for the Best Foreign Language Film award. Although eleven previous Japanese films had won Academy Awards in other categories, such as Best Animated Feature or Best Costume Design, the as-yet unattained Best Foreign Language Film award was highly coveted in the Japanese film industry.[k] The Japanese-Soviet co-production Dersu Uzala (Akira Kurosawa; 1975) won the award, but it was submitted for the Soviet Union (Armstrong)[111] Departures was not expected to win, owing to strong competition from the Israeli and French submissions (Ari Folman's Waltz with Bashir and The Class, respectively), but was ultimately chosen in the February 2009 ceremony.[3] This was considered a surprise by several film critics,[112] and The New York Times's David Itzkoff termed Departures "The Film That Lost Your Oscars Pool for You".[113] Motoki also found the victory unexpected; he described himself as a "hanger-on who just observes the ceremony", awaiting the "wonderful" Israeli submission to be announced, who later regretted "not walk[ing] with more confidence" upon his arrival.[35][l]

Departures received recognition at a variety of film festivals, including the Audience Choice Award at the 28th Hawaii International Film Festival, the Grand Prix des Amériques at the 32nd Montreal World Film Festival,[114] and Best Narrative Film the at the 20th Palm Springs International Film Festival.[115] At the 29th Hong Kong Film Awards, it was selected as Best Asian Film over three Chinese films (Lu Chuan's City of Life and Death, Huang Jianxin's The Founding of a Republic, and the Chen Kuo-FuGao Qunshu co-production The Message), as well as Ponyo.[116] Following the 21st Nikkan Sports Film Award ceremony, in which Departures won Best Film and Best Director, Takita expressed surprise at the film's awards, saying "I did not know how well my work would be accepted."[117][m]

In the 3rd Asian Film Awards, held as part of the Hong Kong International Film Festival on 23 March 2009, Motoki was voted Best Actor over competitors such as Song Kang-ho of The Good, the Bad, the Weird and Akshay Kumar of Singh Is Kinng.[118] Motoki's also received Best Performance by an Actor at the 3rd Asia Pacific Screen Awards, held in November 2009, being selected over actors such as Yang Ik-june (Breathless) and Ge You (If You Are the One). Screenwriter Koyama was nominated for Best Screenplay, but lost to Iran's Asghar Farhadi (About Elly).[119] Motoki also received the Viewers' Choice Award at the 17th Golden Rooster and Hundred Flowers Film Festival (zh),[120] and Best Actor at the 51st Blue Ribbon Awards.[121] The film topped the Best Ten list at the 82nd Kinema Junpo Awards, as well as awards for Best Director, Scrrenplay, and Lead Actor.[122] Koyama won the 60th Yomiuri Prize for Drama/Screenplay.[123] By December 2009 the film had won 98 awards.[124]

Cultural impact[edit]

A room set up for an encoffining in the film, maintained as a tourist site

The international success of Departures was big news in Japan; its win at the Academy Award was the first for a Japanese film since the Best Foreign Language Film category was created in 1956.[125] The win led to a theatrical re-release in Japan and to Aoki's book selling out in stores—more than 230,000 copies.[126]

After the film's success, Sakata Location Box set up a hospitality service called Mukaebito—a pun on the film's Japanese title indicating "one who greets or picks up", another rather than "one who sends someone off". The service maintains shooting locations and provides maps of these locations for tourists.[37] In 2009, Location Box opened the building that served as the NK Agent office to the public.[127] For a fee, visitors could enter and view props from the film on display. Under a job creation program, between 2009 and 2013 the organization received ¥30 million from Yamagata Prefecture and ¥8 million from Sakata City for the building's maintenance and administration.[41] The site attracted nearly 120,000 visitors in 2009, though numbers quickly fell; in 2013 there were fewer than 9,000 visitors. Safety fears due to the building's age led to the Sakata municipal government ending the organization's lease, and the building was closed again from the end of March 2014. At the time, the City Tourism division was considering options, such as limiting visits to the first two floors.[127] The building used as the Concerto café has been open to the public since 2009 as the Kaminoyama Concerto Museum,[42] and the Sakata Minato-za movie theatre has also been opened to tourists.[43] Takita's hometown of Takaoka, Toyama, maintains a Film Resources Museum; staff have reported that at times over a hundred Takita fans visit per day.[128]

The film's success generated greater interest in encoffining and the nōkanshi.[52] Even the model of hearse driven in the film was merchandised: the Mitsuoka Limousine Type 2-04, a smaller, less expensive version of the film's vehicle, was put on the market 24 February 2009. The manufacturer, Mitsuoka Motors, is located in Takita's hometown of Toyama.[129] In 2013, Mitsuki Kimura, from a family of nōkanshi, and nurse and entrepreneur Kei Takamaru founded the Okuribito Academy, which offers training in encoffining, embalming, and related areas.[130]

Explanatory notes[edit]

  1. ^ Also called a morticians (湯灌師 yukanshi?); yukan is the ceremonial cleansing of the body that comes before the nōkan proper.
  2. ^ 天空静座―HILL HEAVEN
  3. ^ Shinmon Aoki was born in Toyama Prefecture in 1937, and ran a pub-café until it went out of business, thereafter becoming a mortician as detailed in Coffinman (Tanabe 2009, p. 9).
  4. ^ Motoki: 「その職業はとてもミステリアスで、ある種、エロチックで、すごく映画の世界に近いと感じたんです」
  5. ^ Takita's works in the pink film genre included Chikan Onna Kyōshi (Molestful Female Teacher, 1981), Renzoku Bōran (ja) (Serial Violent Rape, 1983) and Mahiru no Kirisaki-Ma (Midday Ripper, 1984) (Suzuki 2012). By the time he directed Departures, his more mainstream work had already gained international recognition and awards: the 2004 film When the Last Sword Is Drawn, for instance, won Takita his first Japan Academy Prize for Best Film (Sapia staff 2009). Such a career path was not uncommon career path for directors in 1970s and 1980s Japan; the Japan Academy Prize winner Masayuki Suo, for instance, made his debut with Kandagawa Pervert Wars (Suzuki 2012).
  6. ^ Motoki was born in 1965 in Saitama and made his professional acting debut in 1981 in the TV drama 2-nen B-gumi Senpachi Sensei (Mr Senpachi of Class 2-B). In 1989 he won the Japan Academy Prize for Best New Actor for his role in Four Days of Snow and Blood (ja) (Weekly Biz staff 2009).
  7. ^ In Himitsu, the personality of a man's dead wife takes over the body of the couple's teenage daughter; Hirosue played both the mother and daughter (Schilling 2009, Funereal flick). She won a Japan Academy Prize for her role (Nakao 2012).
  8. ^ Japanologist Mark R. Mullins notes, however, that the gratitude shown in Departures would likely not have occurred in real life. According to Coffinman, there "is nothing lower on the social scale than the mortician, and the truth of the matter is that [the Japanese people] fear the coffinman and the cremator just as much as death and the corpse" (Mullins 2010, p. 103).
  9. ^ Original: ishibumi (いしぶみ?) "Inscribed stone monument"
  10. ^ Original: 今回の「おくりびと」っていうのはすべてのバランスが奇跡的につながっていったっていう感じがします。
  11. ^ Before the category was formed in 1956, three Japanese films received honorary awards: Rashomon (Akira Kurosawa; 1951), Gate of Hell (Teinosuke Kinugasa; 1954), and Samurai, The Legend of Musashi (Hiroshi Inagaki; 1955) (MMPAJ).
  12. ^ Departures was not the only Japanese film to receive an Academy Award in the 2009 ceremony; Kunio Katō's La Maison en Petits Cubes took the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film (Tourtellotte & Reynolds 2009).
  13. ^ Original: "「作品がどういうふうに受け入れられるか分からなかった」と。"

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Works cited[edit]

External links[edit]