One thing about the Academy Awards' Best Foreign Language category that separates it from the acting, screenplay, director, and best picture categories is that in order to vote, Academy members must prove that they have actually seen all five nominees. In a way, this is good: it means there's less politicking and favoritism and more sincere praise for the film that voters actually believe is best. But on the other hand, the Academy members who have time to go to special screenings of the five nominees are liable to be the old, retired ones, and their tastes might not accurately reflect those of the Academy in general.
All of this was relevant this year, when a Japanese film no one had ever heard of, called Departures, won the Oscar when all the forecasts had been for either The Class or Waltz with Bashir (which, not coincidentally, were the only two nominees that had played in the U.S. at that point). The Academy voters had seen all five films. Had they, in their wisdom, chosen the film that truly was best?
The answer is: eh, maybe. Now that Departures is making the festival rounds in advance of its stateside release in May, we're able to see why it appealed to the voters. As it turns out, it's a perfect Oscar choice, a fine film that's gently funny and moving and not the least bit challenging or controversial. It tells its story with elegant simplicity and is aimed at neither the lowest common denominator nor the highbrow art-house crowd. Pleasantly in the middle is where it sits, and it's happy to be there. In Tokyo, a man of about 30 named Daigo (Masahiro Motoki), who looks like the Japanese Eric Bana, has finally landed his dream job as a professional cellist, only to have the orchestra dissolved due to unprofitability. Crestfallen, Daigo and his doting wife, Mika (Ryoko Hirosue), move to the small town Daigo grew up in, to the house his mother left him when she died. Not much has changed about the town, nor about the house, though Daigo is surprised to find among his mother's things record albums that belonged to his father. The bastard walked out on them when Daigo was six, and Daigo always assumed his mother never wanted to think about him again. Yet here are these keepsakes.
Responding to a rather ambiguous classified ad, Daigo gets a job as a sort of mortician, assisting with the process of "encoffinment," the ceremonial washing and dressing of a body in preparation for burial. His boss, an older man named Sasaki (Tsutomu Yamazaki), hires him essentially because he's the only applicant and he's willing to work hard, then takes him under his wing to teach him the encoffinment trade.
The film gets some broad laughs out of Daigo's initial aversion to dealing with corpses, including a goofy sequence where a body turns out to be the opposite gender of the one Daigo expected. There's also a terrifically farcical scene of Daigo having to play a corpse for a training video. Mixing this kind of low humor with the poignance that mostly defines the film might seem odd, but it seems to happen that way a lot in Japanese cinema.
More seriously, Daigo is reluctant to tell Mika what kind of job he got, and his childhood friend, Yamashita (Tetta Sugimoto), shuns him when he learns of it. That element of the story probably makes more sense to Japanese viewers, or viewers who are more familiar with Japanese culture than I am. It's not clear whether encoffinment is optional or mandatory, religious or secular, and certain characters' disdain for it is perplexing. (That's not a criticism -- obviously the film was made for Japanese audiences -- merely an observation.)
Director Yojiro Takita does a masterful job depicting the ceremony, a modest, reverent rite that's carried out respectfully by Daigo and Sasaki -- especially Sasaki, who has done this for decades, who comes into families' lives when they are mourning and helps them say goodbye. He helps them find dignity in death. The actor who plays Sasaki, Japanese film veteran Tsutomu Yamazaki, conveys great compassion from behind his solemn eyes.
The screenplay, by first-timer Kundo Koyama, has a few clunky moments of obvious symbolism, like the one where Daigo watches salmon swimming upstream to their place of birth just to die. (They want to go home one last time!) The film's overall message -- that you need to talk to your loved ones now, before it's too late -- is sweet enough, though, and not hammered home too obnoxiously. (If this were an American film, "The Living Years" by Mike + the Mechanics would have been prominently featured at some point.) It probably wouldn't have been my vote for the Oscar, but it is a respectable and lovely film.