Yôjirô Takita is Japan's version of the Hollywood journeyman director: competent, prolific and undistinguished, sliding without fanfare from one cinematic style and subject to the next (including soft porn). Departures, which inexplicably beat out The Class and Waltz With Bashir for last year's Oscar for best Foreign Language Film, would probably be considered Takita's take on the films of James L. Brooks (Terms of Endearment, Broadcast News, etc.), a weepy comic-drama that merges perceptive modern commentary with Hallmark-style sentimentality.
Cellist Daigo (Masahiro Motoki) is a capable but unspectacular artist struggling to find work after his orchestra disbands. Answering an ad for help with "departures" — which he assumes has something to do with travel (despite the presence of coffins in the office) — he's immediately hired by a gruff and cuddly old man (Tsutomu Yamazaki). Before you can say, "fish out of water," Daigo is cleaning, dressing and grooming corpses for grieving families. Worried what his wife will think, Daigo hides his unsavory "casketing" job even as he grows to enjoy it. Obvious metaphors being what they are, we soon see the young musician's reinvention and renewal.
For more than half its running time, Departures follows Daigo as he learns the funereal ropes in a farcical series of end-of-life episodes that run the gamut of black comedy to whimsy to lump-in-your-throat tragic (sometimes it kind of works, awkwardly guiding us through a litany of Kübler-Ross-style scenarios). The narrative's clunky and the character's unforgivably broad, but death's rituals and ceremonies make engrossing theater, and the camaraderie between the two men pulls you in.
Inevitably, however, Takita and screenwriter Kundo Koyama want their movie to mean something, so in the last third of this too-long tale we're treated to over-the-top instances of cloying sentimentality: a treacly montage, Joe Hisaishi's absurdly soaring soundtrack and Motoki indulging in what my old theater coach called "schmacting." No mawkish point is too small to hammer and no heartstring too thin to pluck for the finale, as Daigo systematically navigates dramatic turns you saw a mile away. It's an unfortunate conclusion to this otherwise inoffensive and occasionally moving film, whose biggest sin was being rewarded when far better films weren't.
At the Maple Art Theatre (4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills; 248-263-2111).
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].