The Japanese are a sentimental race, and they love their rituals. I mean, who else could make such a giant magilla about pouring a cup of tea? This movie is about a failed cello player who returns to his hometown and sort of accidentally gets a job as an “encoffiner,” a profession for which there is no American equivalent. (The ad said he would be assisting in departures, and he thought he would be a travel agent.) The job is to wash and dress and apply make-up to a corpse, in the presence of the family. We see this ritual, or parts of it, done a dozen times, and come to realize that it is done exactly the same every time. The encoffiners display a vast tact and sensitivity, managing to do their work without ever exposing any part of the body except the head. It is fascinating to watch.
At first I thought we’d be seeing a Japanese “Six Feet Under,” since there were some funny scenes, as when poor Daigo has to pose as a corpse while his boss makes a demonstration video. But it soon gets much more serious. It is quite moving, and well-written and well-acted, though maybe a little slow here and there.
I had two questions at the end of the film. First, these guys are supposed to be preparing the body to deliver to the mortician. But I don’t see what the mortician has left to do. The bodies are being cremated. If they are to be embalmed, I’d think all that meticulous washing and dressing by the encoffiner would have to be undone. Second … Daigo’s first assignment is to recover a woman who has been dead in her bed for two weeks. The body is not shown, except for one decayed foot. (Daigo loses his lunch.) A body that rancid simply cannot be prepared in the way we’ve seen; it could literally fall apart. No way do you want the family to see it, and certainly not smell it. So … why the encoffiners? I would think picking up that body would be a job for the mortician to dump directly into a closed coffin.
A lot of critics were pissed off at this movie for winning the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film over the big favorite, Waltz With Bashir. I think this is unfair. I agree that this is a movie that breaks no new ground, takes few chances (though the director felt there would probably be no market for it in Japan, where talking about death is frowned on), and unfolds pretty much as you would expect it to. And I agree that Waltz is a better movie. And I agree that the stodgy old Academy members probably are never going to give an Oscar to an animated movie except in the animated category. But none of that is the fault of Departures. It really sucks when a critic’s review puts a movie down because it wasn’t as good as something totally different, whose only common ground was that neither movie was in English.