Friday, April 17, 2009

Departures おくりびと

Okuribito (Departures)

Directed by Yojiro Takita

Starring Masahiro Motoki, Tsutomu Yamazaki, Ryoko Hirosue

We talk to our dead during a wake. We converse with them as if the dearly departed could reply back. Oftentimes, we answer for them.

Oftentimes, we like to pretend that the dead are only asleep and it's crucial that they look that way.

The Japanese encoffinment ritual that is the heart of Departures is the most affectionate gesture I have ever seen on screen. It is graceful yet precise; concealing the difficult task of cleaning and disrobing the dead with a hypnotic, almost celebratory dance, knees firmly tucked under, arms rising and falling and fingers fluttering. Fussing like a mother; rigid like a father. Playful like a child. The bereaved family watches closely and become part of the corpse's transformation, from a cold, empty shell to a familiar face that they've woken up to or watched fall asleep in the years that have passed.

As a child, I used to watch my mother suit up for work and I've only remembered recently how I have memorized her morning routine: the perfume behind the ears before anything else, the skirt that she carefully smooths out, the watch, her only jewelry, that she gingerly clicks into place. Watching the encoffinment ceremony feels like watching someone go through his daily ritual one last time.

In refined, thoughtful strokes, Departures paints different scenarios of last goodbyes with such unpredictability in the details that it feels painfully real. The ceremonies do tend to end in tears (quiet, howling) but it's the subtle change in atmosphere---the slightest tics of recognition and submission to fate on the faces of husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, sons and daughters and lovers, and the wistful look of committing to memory the contours and the imperfection that once loved them back---that director Yojiro Takita carefully captures with polite elegance.

Much like us unfamiliar with the Japanese cermony, Daigo is the outsider, the watchful eye that is slowly drawn into a career of encoffinment. Played brilliantly by Masahari Motoki, who first thought of filming Departures ten years ago after reading the memoir of an enconffinment master, Daigo is an awkward mess of insecurity and unfulfilled dreams. Recognizing his own limitation in playing the cello, he and his wife Mika (the luminous Ryoko Hirosue) move back to Yamagata to look for a new job. He stumbles upon an ad on "Assisting Departures" and thinking that it was a travel agency opening, applies for it.

His introduction to corpses is a gag but as he is drawn deeper into the refined precision of the ritual, almost similar to the fret play on the cello, Daigo unravels into his own person and confronts memories he has been running away from all his life.

I'm forgiving the movie for its singular, obviously-staged montage (Who plays cello in a rice field? Even the kurosagi seem to be bothered by it.) because as a joyfully heartbreaking whole, Departures is one of those rare movies that transforms into a shared experience. The movie poses through images difficult questions about life and death, contemplates the answers, and leaves it to us mull over. It's loose structure gives the string of encounters breathing space, making room for Daigo's own personal battles, his struggle to remember his estranged father's face, the quiet brevity it requires. And what I love most, for all its thematic weight, is the movie's light footed humor, most of the time rolling with the funny down its melancholic twists. Unpretentious, the humble film that could, Departures wistfully offers us the gift of how to say goodbye.

(And yes, it is better than any of the 5 nominees for Best Picture in this year's Oscar race.)


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