Friday, May 13, 2011


Yôjirô Takita, 2008, Japan (10.0*)
Best Foreign Film (AA)
This is quite simply one of the most graceful, elegant, and lyrical films I've ever seen, and one of the most beautiful to watch. It's also one of the most emotionally moving and poignant ever made.

A young married cellist, Daigo (Masahiro Motoki) plays for a small orchestra that is not making enough money to survive, so its owner dissolves the group. Daigo and his wife (Ryôko Hirosue) decide to go back to the small town he grew up in because they can live in his mother's small house that he inherited.

When he arrives, he needs work, and he sees an ad that simply says immediate help needed, with no further information. It turns out that a corpse preparer, Ikuei Sasaki, needs an assistant, and has trouble keeping people. Apprehensive at first, he quickly adapts to the ritualistic and graceful tasks, and the respect shown for the departed as his own mother is dead, and his father left the family when he was six.

The screenplay is full of metaphors. Water is constantly in use, both in a ritual purification before burial, and as a healing cleanser for the living; a local public bathhouse and its proprietor are used prominently, for spiritual as well as physical healing. Snow is also used, for the pristine cleanliness and beauty of the natural world. Swans are shown landing and swimming on lakes. Along with snow, in the springtime there are flurries of cherry blossums. Both the interiors and exteriors are shown for the beauty inherent in each.

Stones are another metaphor - they are used to send messages to another by the type of stone given from person-to-person, something done in ancient times before letters. A rough stone meant the giver was worried about the recipient; a small, smooth one just the opposite. They also imply a permanence seldom found in the world of the living.

Food is also used to symbolize life; as the director (in a dvd interview) and a character says, "to eat is to live, life is impossible without eating". Also that most food is something dead, so the dead provide nourishment for the living. This is one of the more literary screenplays you will ever see.

This was a 15-year project for director Yôjirô Takita, after the idea was brought to him by one of the actors, Masahiro Motoki. Though screenplay credit goes solely to Kundô Koyama, in an interview Takita said that he did the first rough draft, then it was completed by himself and the actors together.

Overall, the film won 33 awards (out of just 39 nominations), including 10 of 13 Japanese academy awards for film, director, actor, cinematography, editing, screenplay, sound, lighting, supporting actor, and supporting actress. The only 3 it lost were actress, art direction, and score.

Departures won many other best films awards: Oscar® for foreign language film, Hawaii Int'l Film fest, Hochi film awards, Kinema Junpo awards, Mainichi Film Concours, Montreal World Film fest, Nikkon Sports Film awards, Palm Springs Int'l Film fest, Udine Far East film fest, Wisconsin film fest, Yokohama Film fest. The only awards missing seem to be BAFTA, Cannes, and Sundance. Masahiro Motoki won 5 best actors awards for his lead performance.

Awards (15) for director Takita, who said he was most pleased that such a personal and such a Japanese film meant something to viewers in other nations around the world.

Director Yôjirô Takita,
accepting his Oscar®

This is an instant classic, one of the best Japanese films of all time, and one of the best films about life and death ever made. Easily an all-time top 100 film for me, and I think for many others as well. This film more than any other captures the solemn, respectful Japanese ritualistic culture like no other.

Departures joins these other four Oscar winners from Japan:
1951: Rashomon (Akira Kurosawa)
1954: Gate of Hell (Teinosuke Kinugasa)
1955: Samurai 1: Musashi Miyamoto (Hiroshi Inagaki)
1975: Dersu Uzala (Soviet Union/Japan - Akira Kurosawa)

Note: I apologize for such a long review, I normally write capsule reviews that can be read quickly, but I was obviously very much impressed with this film, as was the film-viewing world. This  is only the 40th perfect 10 rating I've given out.


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These are the individual film reviews of what I'm considering the best 1000 dvds available, whether they are films, miniseries, or live concerts. Rather than rush out all 1000 at once, I'm doing them over time to allow inclusion of new releases - in fact, 2008 has the most of any year so far, 30 titles in all; that was a very good year for films, one of the best ever.

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