Dumb comedy and spiritual uplift are not ingredients that readily mix. We’ve seen this at least once already this year with The Soloist, a movie that strove to blend reverence for classical music with pathos interspersed by sneak attacks of grim slapstick. Departures, the recent upset winner for best foreign film at the Oscars, triumphing over the highly praised yet convoluted Waltz with Bashir, pursues this odd route as well; the results this time are no less awkward.

Departures begins with an almost abstract shot of gray mist and snow. Slowly, headlights emerge, as a car wends it way through the forbidding winter weather. The two passengers in black suits are encoffiners, en route to a funeral that turns out to be for an attractive young woman. The senior of the two men, Sasaki (Tsutomu Yamazaki), informs his novice associate that the girl was a “suicide by charcoal” and that her body had been found soon after her death. The younger man asks how he can tell. “No agony,” the elder replies. He encourages Daigo (a handsome Masahiro Motoki) to take the lead in the encoffination process, and so the assistant addresses the gathered bereaved at the ceremony, talking them through his steps “to prepare the deceased for a peaceful departure.” He smoothes his hands over her face; he molds her hands into a prayer-like pose, and a woman chimes a bell; he wraps the body within a gray and black cloth. The scene, up to this point, has treated its tricky topic (caring for a dead body) respectfully enough, yet because the screenwriter Kundo Koyama and the director Yojiro Takita insist that the film be a comedy, the movie lapses into the bizarre. While sterilizing the corpse, Daigo reaches a certain region of the anatomy, and he can’t go any further. At first, I thought he’d been aroused by the act of running a cloth along the length of the young body, on whose beauty he had earlier remarked, but it’s revealed that the deceased was trans-gender. A delicate dilemma (should the corpse be made-up as a man or a woman?) and the ensuing squabbles amongst the relatives are played for uneasy laughter—laughter that just isn’t there.

The movie flashbacks to a symphony orchestra playing “Ode to Joy” from Beethoven’s 9th. It’s a boisterous performance of a warhorse, but the nearly empty hall (apparently not the first of such sparsely attended concerts) results in the orchestra’s disbanding. Daigo, a new addition to the cello section, finds himself out of a vocation and with a debt of 18 million yen (the price of his instrument) staring him in the face. He and his perky wife give up their Tokyo flat and retreat to his bucolic boyhood home in the Yamagata Prefecture. He scours the want ads; spotting one about “departures,” he applies for what he believes will be a gig in the travel industry. There’s a valid subject here—the loss of a skilled artisan’s livelihood, and the subsequent scrambling around even for a shit job—that’s lost in the filmmakers’ trivial approach. Arriving on the heels of the global economic catastrophe known as the Bush-Cheney years, Departures couldn’t be timelier, and yet the movie simply diddles its currency away in a quest for crowd-pleasing, cliché-reaffirming good times. For example, an octopus that Daigo’s spouse Mika (Ryoko Hirosue) has purchased for their dinner remains very much alive; it wriggles across their kitchen floor as Mika screams, in a bit that is straight out of sitcom/cartoon land.

To its immense credit, the film has good cinematography by Takeshi Hamada, who makes excellent use of the soft, pearl gray light of the exteriors from cityscape to countryside. He nicely composes medium-wide shots so that our eyes may take in the surroundings the characters inhabit; he has an exquisite sense of color as well as a penchant for unexpected aerial angles that are the visual equivalent of le mot juste. In the most memorable of these, husband and wife exit a bathhouse on a winter evening. The shot begins with a horizontal descent from the rooftop as Mika exclaims, “It’s all white,” then the camera glides down to capture the couple underneath a black-green awning that extends across the full width of the frame. Hamada wedges the two actors into a pocket of the screen slightly right of center. It’s a thrilling way to record the falling of a light snow.

Unfortunately, Takita and Koyama are more interested in staging humiliations for their leading man. Motoki wears pinstriped suits for most of the movie, yet in the film’s worst scene, he’s clad in a giant diaper—infantilized—to play the role of guinea pig in a trade video that demonstrates encoffination techniques. Grinning and near naked, Motoki/Daigo looks shamefully embarrassed. He convulses as his boss goes through the sterilization rubdown, and when Daigo’s face and nose are slathered with shaving cream, he naturally develops an air bubble in one nostril (the movie’s jokes aren’t subtle), and writhes around so twitchily that Sasaki’s razor gashes his cheek. Daigo snivels in agony, bleeding, yet the director’s tone stays apple pie-innocent, so that (presumably) we’ll enjoy laughing at the young man’s misery. I didn’t, and I can’t imagine anyone finding humor in this, no matter how mild-manneredly Takita tiptoes into black comedy. Repeatedly, we’re meant to guffaw at Daigo’s on-the-job discomfort, to savor the ridicule the movie heaps at him, while at the same time regarding Daigo as a sympathetic figure; the gambit doesn’t work.

Forty-five minutes into the 131-minute running time, Daigo takes out the small cello he had used in his student days, and he plays a solo. It’s a quiet, reflective moment, of which Departures needs more. But, alas, the childhood memories stirred—the flashbacks to the father who abandoned him as a boy—are as sentimental as a greeting card. The movie ricochets back and forth between solemnity and tastelessness; it would be difficult to state which miscalculated juxtaposition lands with the greatest thud, although the segue between a middle-aged father in tears over the trans-gendered child he failed to comprehend into close-ups of the morticians chowing down on fried chicken drumsticks struck me as particularly galling. From there, we have a montage sequence of funeral processions for young and old alike (a high percentage of the movie’s corpses are youthful) set to a soundtrack swelling triumphantly with orchestral crescendos; Takita inter-splices the ceremonies with shots of Daigo majestically sawing away on his cello before a snow-peaked mountaintop. “Yes, he can!” the movie seems to say, and the effect of all this is more than slightly ludicrous—it’s as if the movie were Rocky for embalmers. – NPT

July 3, 2009