Subscribe to the APA Newsletter
Saying goodbye to Japanese cinema 2008: or, why Yojiro Takita's Departures deserves its own top 10.
What a fantastically great year for Japanese cinema! By that, I don't mean the unfortunate passing of legendary director Kon Ichikawa or the great actor Ken Ogata, or the untimely passing of one of the greatest scholars of Japanese cinema in the west, Keiko McDonald, all three of whom will be missed greatly by any cinema aficionado. But the films this year had such range, energy, and overall excellence that one would swear Japan wasn't dominated by TV studio scripting and casting. It still is, of course, but the best movies this year (and there were several) either avoided it entirely, or managed to transcend their genre/studio trappings. This was a year where Kiyoshi Kurosawa made a horror/domestic drama, where Takashi Miike concocted a physics/rock n' roll romance, where Tetsuya Nakashima combined fairy tales with brutality, and where newcomers Norihiro Koizumi and Yosuke Fujita respectively grappled with a very sad wrestling comedy and the funniest four-way lovefest I've ever seen (one of the principals wants to create the world's greatest haunted house. He's thirty).
Every single great filmmaker this year -- whether my favorite, Hirokazu Kore-eda, or other greats like Ryuichi Hiroki, Koki Mitani, or Satoshi Miki -- brought heaps of laughter to the table. But perhaps the most gentle film, Yojiro Takita's Departures, made me feel the best after watching it despite the fewest chuckles of them all. You might hear more about it in the coming months, as it's the most successful commercial and internationally critical film since Masayuki Suo's Shall We Dance?, and is Japan's official entry in the Academy Award's Best Foreign Film category. In a year where the films were too excellent to count, Departures needs more justification than is standard for it being the best Japanese film of the year.
1. It's very well made
Let's just get that out of the way right now. The film doesn't have the best direction of the year (that would be Tokyo Sonata), the best writing (Still Walking), or even the best acting (a hilarious Koichi Sato in The Magic Hour and phenomenally good Aoi Miyazaki in the taiga drama Atsuhime). But it doesn't have any weaknesses in these departments either, making even the most out of Ryoko Hirosue, whose voice I usually can only take in small doses, as her role is an excellent one and beautifully written. Every role here was written with the idea that the supporting characters would graciously have some of the good lines. Even the sets have been meticulously selected and contribute to the themes of the film. Jo Hisaishi's best score of the year, and not the one for that cartoon about a fucking fish, can also be found here.
2. It has Tsutomu Yamazaki
That's not a joke. When's the last time Yamazaki had a decent part? Probably the last time Juuzo Itami was alive and kicking yakuza goons in the teeth (cinematically speaking). You need the veterans speaking some of the good lines if you want a halfway decent movie. You just do. You know how the Celtics brought in KG (and to a lesser extent, that fucker Ray Allen) and suddenly Rajon Rondo and Kendrick Perkins and the rest of the kids suddenly got a lot better and became players you could trust? I think the same thing happens in a movie when you bring in an actor as great but as generous as Yamazaki and give him an important role in the film. The young actors will either buckle under the pressure and look ridiculous in comparison, or, if they're worth their salt, will suddenly sound a lot more convincing and rise to the occasion. Hirosue and especially Masahiro Motoki, previously potentially good actors, turn in the performances of their careers.
3. It's not what you think it will be
So you've read this far and are wondering, "What's it about, damn you?" Well, very simply, it's about a young cellist named Daigo (Motoki) who, having been laid off from his orchestra gig, realizes that he never really wanted to pursue this career path after all. He moves back to his country hometown with his wife (Hirosue), and there finds a new job under the elderly Sasaki (Yamazaki) as a nokanshi, what might be defined as an "encoffiner," a professional who prepares the dead for burial and "sends them off" into the next world through an elaborate ceremony revolving around a public washing and dressing of the corpse with as little wasted movement as possible.
And that's just it -- Departures is a fairly simple movie on its surface, but you don't watch it anticipating what will come next. To describe what happens in the movie would betray how the film's events are revealed -- gradually, elegantly, with as little build-up as possible. I had thought the premise would be a very serious and dull version of Evelyn Waugh's biting The Loved One, where dead Angelenos are covered in goo for their funerals and look nothing like their former, alive selves. The preparation of the body in the Japanese culture of Departures is not grotesque, but pared down and reinvigorating. It captures the essence of a person's vitality.
We watch the detail and precision of the ceremony and understand why a job so ostensibly disdainful can be so important to the living who hope to capture one last fleeting memory. We come to understand how the artistic nature of the work would appeal to a musician like Daigo. We see how Daigo and his wife too quickly embrace the clean air and adjust slowly to a change in the fundamentals of their marriage. We witness Daigo come to grips with his abandoned childhood by learning to respect not only his work, but the deceased that pass on.
I've probably just made the film sound like a dreadful bore -- but it's not for a single minute. It has about as much joie de vivre for life's visceral pleasures as any Juuzo Itami masterpiece, no doubt aided by Yamazaki's calm, experienced presence. The fact is, Departures and its weird, indie premise wouldn't seem like ideal material for Shochiku Studios, but Takita and his producers have turned out a film that is slick but small, star-laden but humble, and light in subject but grand in scale and meaning. To enter the world of Departures is to enter the world of a great western. It's a little corny at first, and it takes a little getting used to, and then -- bam! You're in, and the old bathhouses, hip wooden cafes, well-kept inns, and snowy landscapes are all familiar, and now you don't want to leave.
4. It's a manga
Pretty piss-poor year for live-action manga adaptations, and anime as a whole. The films this year make the Death Note movies look like they were handled by Peter Jackson and James Ivory. Like last year's ultra-realistic Strawberry Shortcakes, Departures is also a manga. No condensing of plot or excising of major characters here -- the manga is lean and well-written, almost like a storyboard for a film. Well, actually the manga was created as a promotional tool after the film's story was finalized, but since the film took so long to produce, the manga entered and spread some good anticipation in the marketplace before the film was released. The most popular manga rarely make the best films anyway -- there's too much fan and cultural baggage there, and if the manga creator gets involved, it's time to abandon ship.
5. It's not for children
Sorry kids -- no Hori Pro or Johnny's eye candy in this one. There's a strong collection of actors from three generations, and none of them are thankfully born in the Heisei era. When I say it's not for kids, that doesn't mean there's anything here particularly offensive or objectionable. But the themes, ideas, and setting of this story will resonate much stronger with those who've had their hearts broken or have seen a dream or two dashed, and, most importantly, no longer have the luxury of a do-over. It might even resonate the strongest for those younger viewers at a major crossroads in school, a career, a relationship. In other words, the film is also about mistakes in Life, and how sometimes even a single one will become irretrievable and magnified as one gets older.
6. It's freshly conservative
Conservative-leaning movies are not as rare in Japan as they are here in the States, where Hollywood and academia is pretty much dominated by a left-leaning, Heston-hating coterie. But the conservative Japanese movies these days are either of the dewy boomer-induced nostalgia typical of Always: Sunset on Third Street, or a fanatical banzai to war heroes a la this year's I Want to be a Shellfish. In other words: blech. How wonderful that Departures is a film that celebrates small communities while not totally ignoring their ugly, parochial nature, or that it understands that the simple pleasures of life are instilled from tradition, but that it's up to the young to carry that tradition on. The script is generous in that it asks the young to go back to their homes, not to watch them decay, but to rebuild them anew. And it's all done without a bit of finger-wagging.
7. It's freshly progressive
Then again, Departures seems to advocate the anti-urban, pro-green stance of the GanbaraNAI movement that became popular several years ago among overworked, underpaid, stressed-out city dwellers. The movement -- which means roughly "DON'T try your best" -- argued for a simpler, less commercial lifestyle, scaling back production and population for more space, less waste, and a return to cleaner, healthier lifestyles away from the metropolis. It might've just been an excuse to get employers to reduce unpaid overtime, but the movement has been embraced by youths not eager to join their parents lockstep in the march to materialism at the sacrifice of personal and family time.
8. It's socially relevant
Few films in Japan will address what is an increasing social employment problem -- the freeter (unemployed freelance) or NEET (Not currently engaged in Employment, Education, or Training) subculture that is evolving not from crazed otaku or video-game-addicted schoolkids -- the favorite mea culpa of the media -- but from a disenchanted young professional class hopelessly entrenched, hopping between temp jobs. Departures doesn't directly address this problem either, but as sharply argued by Marie Iida at Neojaponisme, the film makes a very persuasive case that a life of fulfillment can best be found away from the haul of the city, and back to those rural enclaves where the kids have left their aging parents to die. The film mines the same territory as Tokyo Sonata with a different approach, showing the absurdity of urban life through elevating the virtues of the countryside.
9. It's generationally relevant
Okay, so maybe there's a little too much extolling of the hills, as the transition to the countryside is pretty smooth and hassle-free. But the film is not without its share of complications, as nasty neighbors and a displeased wife reveal to Daigo that this simpler life will have its share of stresses and sacrifices. What becomes so thrilling to watch is how this defeated man -- a stand-in for many quarter-lifers like him all too ready to say uncle to life -- becomes alive through conviction in his work and his new vocation. Departures makes you think that hey, maybe it's not the end of the world if you aren't famous, glamorous, and cavorting with celebrities, which, according to surveys, is what most young Japanese are aspiring to do. It glamorizes hard work away from any potential glory, and is that such a bad thing?
Maybe this sounds like a defeatist attitude towards life, and maybe Daigo's profession is a little too appealing in how it glosses over employment's unpleasantries. The film might sound like a Northern Exposure-type urban romantic fantasy, but Daigo and his wife are not dipping in and out of the country -- they've decided they're going to make the best of it. I love how the nature of Daigo and Sasaki's work must inherently and non-discriminately bridge generational gaps between the town's population. Takita and writers are asking: the old won't be here much longer, so what are you going to do to replace them? The film takes its time in answering.
10. It's funny and moving
While Kore-eda's excellent Still Walking has been most frequently compared to Ozu's painfully funny melodramas, Departures to me conjures up the human comedy in even more organic and subtly humorous ways. In the film's opening "send off," Daigo must prepare the body of a young woman and, while undressing her, realizes that she's a young man. While surprised glances ensue, Daigo also then faces the decision of how to represent this person to his family: as the girl she wanted to be or as the boy her family might be more comfortable with. In another sequence, our nokan-hero begins to prepare a girl's corpse in her late-teens when the family, which had theretofore been sobbing, suddenly turns on each other blaming (and pummeling) everyone but themselves for her untimely death. Such awkward moments are handled with what appears to be little effort, but are really a reflection of director Takita's extensive training in pink cinema and his clever sex comedies, even if the subject matter and treatment wasn't quite "mainstream" with titles like Molester Train and Pink Physical Check-up. (Takita helps you realize just what a fertile training ground pinku was for some of today's greatest Japanese directors)
The humor in Departures springs naturally from the tensely dramatic situations Daigo, his wife, and his mentor are constantly thrust into, balancing these sad and hilarious moments like the films of a gentler Alexander Payne. There are many things to enjoy about Departures, but its poignancy arises from the fact that it has frozen life's crucial transitions so distinctly and uniquely. The film might make you think about what you want and love in life, and how most of those desires will be irrelevant to what will actually happen, preaching not passivity, but less planning and waiting and, simply, more living.
Daigo's adjustment to his new, fantastically strange line of work becomes something bigger: a situational adjustment to his new bosses and neighbors, an emotional adjustment to his relatively new marriage, a psychological adjustment involving his parents. Departures comes to symbolize, despite Daigo's return to the countryside, the adjustments of a generation that must carry on in a world of bathhouses, teahouses, and elaborate ritual that has already begun to slowly fade away. That it's so damn funny about all of it makes it all the more wonderful.
Back to APA's Best of 2008 issue
Date Posted: 1/2/2009