Daigo Kobayashi (Masahiro Motoki) is a devoted cellist in a Tokyo orchestra that has just been dissolved and he is left without a job. Despondent, he takes his young wife Mika (Ryoko Hirosue) to the small town where he grew up (after his father left the family when he was six) and where his late mother had left her small cottage to him, so they can live rent free. Spotting a Help Wanted ad in the local paper featuring the word "departures," he is happy to try a new career ... in the travel industry, perhaps. Daigo is hired on the spot, even before learning what the job really entails: the ceremonial "encoffination" of corpses prior to cremation, working as the assistant to the boss, Shouei (Tsutomo Yamazaki). Mika resents the job but Daigo soon takes a certain pride in his work, acting as a gentle gatekeeper between life and death. It takes news of his father's death at a small fishing port to resolve his various emotional conflicts.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
In so many cultures, farewelling the dead with respect and love is one of the ways of grieving and coping with the inevitable end of a life. By itself, the subject would make a fantastic doco (please can I narrate it!). The rituals and customs that various societies practice surrounding death have always fascinated me, and I'm not alone. Indeed, it was the film's star, Masahiro Motoki, who came up with the idea of a movie set against the backdrop of the rather delicate and artistic Japanese custom and a Japanese 'nakanshi' (encoffiner - the person who ceremonially prepares a body for the coffin). It was triggered by his visit to India, where he saw life and death sharing the riverbanks . . . He took to the role seriously and learnt the craft first hand, enhancing his graceful and caring performance as the young man thrown into the job. He also seems to play the cello pretty well ...
The film has enjoyed tremendous acclaim, from a Foreign Language Oscar (2008)* to numerous other awards, but I hesitate to recommend it unreservedly. Better to lower your expectations and discover those elements that touch you most deeply without waiting for the film to deliver something that it doesn't really promise. Yes, it's engaging, woven together with a light, sometimes humorous touch - and the screenplay is layered with the theme of parent and child relationships. Indeed, it is Daigo's feelings about the father who left them when he was just 6 that give the film its real emotional grounding. And it is the resolution of this underlying tension that also gives the film it's more satisfying payoff.
But it is sometimes a little stilted and a little laborious, and director Yojiro Takita (a terrific craftsman) lets himself be seduced by sentiment; we could do without scenes of Daigo playing his cello on the raised bank of a river with birds flying and an orchestra rousing us ....or the extended scene of meaningful glances at the end .... for example. The treatment of Daigo and Mika's relationship also leaves something to be desired, but in the overall thrust of the story this is not so critical.
Performances are (with a few exceptions) mostly spot on, and I especially like the master encoffiner, the veteran actor Tsutomo Yamazaki.
* The other contenders for the Foreign Language Oscar in 2008 were: The Baader Meinhof Complex, The Class, Revanche and Waltz With Bashir.
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CAST: Masahiro Motoki, Tsutomo Yamazaki, Ryoko Hirosue,[BREAK]Kazuko Yushiyuki, Takashi Sasano
PRODUCER: Toshiaki Nakazawa, Ichiro Nobukuni, Toshihisha Watai
DIRECTOR: Yojiro Takita
SCRIPT: Kundo Koyama
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Takeshi Hamada
EDITOR: Akimasa Kawashima
MUSIC: Joe Hisaishi
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Fumio Ogawa
RUNNING TIME: 130 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Madman
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: October 15, 2009