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SIFF 2009, Day 1


Departures (2008) dir. Youjirou Takita

Last night, we went to the very sold out screening of Departures (Okuribito). Departures was the winner of the Best Foreign Language film for the Oscars, so unlike most of the films at SIFF, people have heard of this one. And I, having some awareness of the wonderful dramatic films that are made in Japan, had high expectations.

Daigo Kobayashi had just achieved his livelong dream, he had finally become a celloist in an orchestra, which immediately is disbanded. In an attempt to reevalute his life and make ends meet, he moves back to his home town and answers an add titled "departures" assuming he was applying to work in a travel agency. Turns out the departures the job advertisment was referring are a bit more permanent than a vacation, and he begins to work in the funeral industry. Much of the drama of the film is derived from the misunderstanding of the funeral industry and the shameful nature of working in such an unclean industry.

What was interesting about Departures was the practice of preparing the dead for cremation in Japan. Unlike in the West, it was done in view of the grieving family. The loved one was washed, dressed, make-up applied and layed in a casket while the family observes. The way that these tasks were done was intriguing as it was all done with complete respect and reverence for both the deceased and the family. It was fasinating to watch the washing and preparation of the body without any flesh being displayed to the watching family.

Otherwise, Departures was very formulaic. In fact, the film seemed to follow the Oscar formulae to a level of perfection seldom matched by Hollywood. Yes, this movie does exactly what the audience expects at every turn and thus, it is a crowd pleasing film. It walks a cautious tightrope dealing with the messy subject of death, while adding just enough humor to make this "unclean" trade palatable and touches upon big emotional issues like acceptance, loss, and regret without dealing with messy complexity, just providing nice, tidy and quick resolutions.

Departures was a fine film; engaging and often very likable, but it was disappointing due to its lack of emotional depth. I never emotionally connected to this film.


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