Departures Review

Departures film still

Score

Astoundingly beautiful, but aesthetically more so than narratively.

As a thirtysomething cellist in an orchestra Daigo Kobayashi (Motoki) has realised his one true childhood passion, but after the orchestra is dissolved he finds himself falling toward professional purgatory. Encouraged by his doting wife Mika (Hirosue), Daigo answers an ad in a local paper ambiguously entitled 'Departures'.

Intrigued, he turns up at a nondescript address for an interview where the vague description is revealed to be a typo. Daigo is stunned to learn that far from handling holidaygoers the business deals exclusively with the dead, or as is amended, 'The Departed'.

Lured by an excessively generous salary Daigo makes a snap decision and accepts the offer extended by the company’s boss and Daigo’s prospective mentor (Yamazaki). But when his first day on the job involves disturbing a recently deceased corpse, Daigo realises that while he can certainly chew what he has bitten off, stomaching it is another matter.

Acclaimed Japanese director Yôjirô Takita has received considerable praise for his latest offering, which is surprising when you consider how utterly unpredictable the film is. Moments of clarity and pragmatism are contradicted by flashes of inanity and dry, if well-delivered humour.

This may be a refreshingly sincere rites of passage story, pivoting precariously though it does on the strength of its central performances (which cannot be faulted), but Departures is by no means the meditative triumph many are billing it as.

Exorcising audience anxieties surrounding mortality, Takita resoundingly manages to portray the passing of life with affection and compassion, but somehow the transition is never as soothing as intended. While our protagonist’s journey from musician to mortician is necessarily swift; his reservations are overcome all too easily, placing an overbearing emphasis on the audience to follow suit.

The problem is that from a Western perspective Japanese cinema often gives off the illusion of being wise, deploying hollow rhetoric and stoical musings to blanket the audience into feeling somehow enlightened, and therefore less likely to pick up on narrative shortcomings.

From the outset there is a great deal of beauty here, both cinematographically and narratively – particularly in the ceremonious preparations that recurringly ground the film’s somewhat erratic tonality. In largely abstaining from over-romanticism, Departures never allows the stench of death to linger, instead exuding an optimism that gestures towards new beginnings; not for the deceased themselves, but for the friends and family left behind.

Disappointingly, however, the film abandons its darkly comic levity far too prematurely, although in any case Takita’s wider metaphorical inferences have long since hit their mark by this point. And besides, with Daigo’s inner anguish rarely sinking below the films surface, you’ll be relieved when his own personal resolution comes full circle, no matter how over-stretched its circumfrance is.

Anticipation

A hotly hyped Japanese drama from one of the county's most esteemed filmmakers.

4

Enjoyment

Astoundingly beautiful, but aesthetically more so than narratively.

3

In Retrospect

Intriguing but ultimately frustrating.

3
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