Saturday, May 23, 2009

Departures: A journey home

Directed by:Yôjirô Takita
Writer: Kundo Koyama
Release Date:13 September 2008 (Japan)
Starring: Masahiro Motoki (Daigo Kobayashi); Tsutomu Ya-mazaki (Ikuei Sasaki); Ryoko Hirosue (Mika Kobayashi); Kazuko Yoshiyuki (Tsuyako Yamashita); Kimiko Yo (Yuriko Kamimura); Takashi Sasano (Shokichi Hirata)

I really don't believe that an award, whatever great it may be, can do anything to a film. If a movie is great, it’s so in its own right. Take for example, ‘Shawshank Redemption.’ It did not win any awards whatsoever. Yet, it's the top film in the list of 250 most-voted movies.
Yet, you expect some films to get their due, because they deserve it. Last year, I was rallying for Ali Folman’s Israeli, animated docu-drama about the 1982 Lebanon war, ‘Waltz with Bashir.’ When the film was nominated for Oscar for best foreign-language film, I expected it win the honour. The film deserved the award. Instead, the award went to an obscure Japanese film called ‘Departures.’ That’s the reason I said I don’t trust awards.
However, after seeing ‘Departures’ yesterday, I'm ready to admit that it was not a wrong choice, after all. Will I call ‘Departures’ a great film, the way I will call ‘Waltz’ a great film? I don’t know. But I will happily recommend it to anyone. It’s a rare gem, glowing incessantly.
‘Okuribito’ is decidedly a small film, like a Japanese miniature, or a bonsai, and it does not lose its focus while meditating on issues of life and death, more life than death perhaps, even though the plot ostensibly deals with dead bodies. The story it wants to tell outweighs the philosophy it tries to impart; there are philosophies nonetheless. Here’s one I enjoyed: “You have to eat if you want to live. Since you have to eat, it better taste good.” Food plays an important role in the film. So is music, so is a desire for a happy family, and other assorted issues of life, and that too when there are more dead bodies in the film than the living creatures. But the film is not about death per se. It's about understanding life through death, and death itself... the beauty of it, and how it shapes the life of those who stay behind. After his ambition to become a cello player fails miserably, Daigo Kobayashi leaves Tokyo to his countryside home with his wife Mika. All his mother had left him was a cafe, which his father used to run before he run away with a waitress when Daigo was six year old. Since then, he has not been able to come to terms with his absentee father. (There are a few sequences between the father and son in flashback, involving stones, which veers towards melodrama; but that’s besides the point...) On reaching the small, desolate town, the first job Daigo applies to is that of preparing the dead for funerals. Daigo is not sure whether he can do the job. He questions if he is being tested for his failure to attend his mother’s funeral. His first job goes really bad. But as the days go by, he finds himself more and more immersed in the job, and his cello.
The extended scenes of Diago preparing the dead, cleaning the bodies, changing their dress, applying make-up, from young girls to old man, can be very unsettling for viewers. But the film exists for these scenes, not vice-versa. The Japanese culture has always been fascinated by death. The film not only reinforces it, but also makes us comfortable with the idea of death.
At one point, Diago asks, why we have to work so hard if we are all going to die anyway? To this, an old man, who works in the funeral home, answers, death is not the end, it’s just the beginning of another journey, the journey home. And it’s Daigo’s job to get them ready for the final journey, and he does it with all the seriousness of an artist. Every job has its dignity, and more so in Daigo Kobayashi’s job.
The several dead bodies that Daigo prepare have their own uniqueness and those small and beautifully created scenes add to the drama of the film. There is a dead crossdresser, a wife mourned by her husband (it’s a small scene, but how the husband cries, 'Naomi,' can break your heart!), there’s a young girl dead in a bike accident, there is a patriarch, who gets kisses from his family members while lying on the coffin, and finally, Daigo must prepare his father for the last journey.
The beautifully desolate town and haunting sound of the cello adds to mood of the film, which is not sombre as it sounds, but forcefully life-affirming.

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