The Japanese film Departures [Okuribito] (2008), which won the 2009 Oscar for Best Foreign Film, comes to us with a brace of reverent, rave reviews deeming the film to be “funny, wise and profound,” “genuinely cathartic” and “cinema at its most affecting.” Really? I found this story of an unemployed cellist (Masahiro Motoki) who returns to his hometown and takes up the post of "encoffiner" (washing and preparing bodies for burial) to be schmaltzy and painfully contrived. It’s true that director Yojiro Takita and writer Kundo Koyama wrest some (mild) black comedy out of the premise during the film’s first half, but the movie slides further and further into egregious sentiment as it progresses, with some laughably heavy-handed symbolism and plot points telegraphed so heavily you can only wince when they arrive. When a significant stone falls from the hand of a character in a climactic reconciliation scene, it’s the final nail in the movie’s own coffin.
Clearly some critics have found the film to be a deep and thoughtful examination of the passage between life and death but the sequences involving the preparation of the bodies are lingered over for so long that they become tedious. In terms of the acting, Motoki is fine, but, as his wife, Ryoko Hirosue gives an embarrassingly winsome performance that seems to encapsulate the film's sentimentality; the wittiest turn comes from Tsutomu Yamazaki as the elderly expert who teaches our hero the finer points of his trade, though even this relationship isn’t as developed as compellingly as it might have been. What Departures proves, ultimately, is that Academy voters these days have about as little good sense when selecting worthy foreign films as they do when honouring homegrown productions. (The unforgettable The Class and the brilliant Waltz with Bashir both lost out to this movie!) Disappointing, to say the least.