Daigo Kobayashi (Masahiro Motoki) is a cellist in an orchestra, a job he is very happy to have secured seeing as how tough times are for musicians, and he hopes it will pay for his cello if all goes well. But it does not all go well - he should have realised when the audiences they were playing to were so sparse, but soon after joining, the owner walks into the room and tells them they are dismissed. Now Daigo is stuck, this was his dream job and he cannot get another, so decides to take his wife Mika (Ryôko Hirosue) back to his home town and his late mother's old home...
Departures, or Okuribito if you were Japanese, was an unexpected hit across the world, or at least did better than many of its fellow Japanese movies abroad, mostly thanks to the Academy Award which it won, raising its profile and generating curiosity about what was so good about it. While it certainly found a responsive audience, there was a significant section of them who found its success somewhat hard to fathom, as from their point of view this was less moving drama and more outright schmaltz. While it wasn't quite as bad as all that, it was true to say director Yôjirô Takita's film had been overrated to quite an extent.
Although it was amusing to note the Takita was surely the only director who made his start in multiple porno flicks to have achieved Oscar-winning status, and aside from one scene you'd never know it. The film didn't actually start with Daigo losing his job, as there was a scene before the credits showing what happened once he had settled in his old hometown where he and his boss, Mr Sasaki (Tsutomu Yamazaki), prepare a corpse for its funeral, and hit a snag when what they thought was a woman turns out to be a man, leaving them wondering how to make up the face of the deceased. That pretty much set out the tone: sadness and respect mixed with a quirky sense of humour.
While not an outright comedy, there were enough scenes to tickle the funny bone to give it a lighthearted nature at some points, and it was in these moments where Departures was at its most palatable. This new job Daigo gets pays well, but he's ashamed of what he is doing as it's not exactly a high status position in society, so much so that he doesn't tell Mika what he's up to, making her believe he works for a travel agency. The story flirts with his humiliation without committing to it, being a softhearted affair when you got down to it, so if the cellist has to appear in an instructional video as the body, it's more as a giggle than anything remotely harrowing.
The same went for his first experience of the profession, where the body is in a bad way, rotting, stinking and attracting flies which makes Daigo throw up, and he seeks solace in the local bathhouse, which opens up narrative possibilities as it is being threatened with closure, but the elderly owner refuses to give it up. Yet the main emotional thread concerns itself with Daigo's absent father who walked out on the family decades ago, though not before ordering him to take cello lessons; the meaning here is that you might as well be dead to those you have left behind even if you're still alive, and the trauma and heartache that results is no less valid for the missing living as it is for the dead and gone forever. This is resolved in a far too pat fashion, skating the film far too close to the facile, and its agressive assault on the audience's tearducts may prove resistable for those not willing to be so blatantly manipulated. Music by Joe Hisaishi.