Thursday, January 07, 2010

Okuribito / Departures (2008)

Daigo has finally achieved his dream of membership of a Tokyo-based symphony orchestra, but after a poorly-attended concert (even for Beethoven's 9th) the owner comes backstage and rather sheepishly informs the musicians that they are to be disbanded. So Daigo sells his cello and returns with his thus far understanding wife Mika to Yamagata, the town of his birth in Japan's chilly north.

Following up on a job ad asking for someone to help out at a firm that "assists with journeys", Daigo begins an apprenticeship in the well-paid but not much respected trade of 'encoffinment'. He decides to keep the exact nature of his new career from Mika, correctly assessing that she will deem him 'unclean' the moment she hears of it, but although dealing with decomposing old ladies is definitely part of the job description, the Japanese ceremony of preparing the recently-deceased for departure is undoubtedly beautiful and cathartic for both Daigo and his new master's clients.

This is of course the basis for one of those knowingly poignant cinematic narratives, and here the elegaic mood is ramped up to the max by periodic scenes of Daigo playing his old junior-sized cello out in the countryside (see poster). Still, the flow of sentiment never really congeals into outright schmalz.

One could argue however that there are one too many moments of final emotional discovery here in an end-section which sheds much of the quirky good humour of the first hour or so. Yet we never felt emotionally-manipulated, and there are in fact lessons to be learned here about the range of different emotions provoked by the passing of a loved one.

Grade: B++

(Won the Oscar last year for Best Foreign Language Film)

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