The only good thing about this Japanese film is its cinematography and some of the music choices—and even then such pleasures are short-lived. Inexplicably the winner of the Best Foreign Film gong at the 2009 Oscars, the film follows a young cellist who, after his orchestra is disbanded, moves with his girlfriend from Tokyo city to the family home in the country left to him by his late mother. He takes a job as an undertaker’s assistant, and tries to keep this secret from his girlfriend.

What could have been an earnest look at Japanese funeral rites—as explored in the opening scene, a flash-forward in which the protagonist successfully prepares a body for cremation—was unfortunately turned into little more than cultural kitsch with a few jokey moments thrown in to appeal to a wider audience than the film should have attempted to target. Making matters worse, clumsy camerawork and some painfully obvious green-screen frequently detract from the story.

Waltz with Bashir, Ari Folman’s excellent animated feature about the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, was also in contention for the Oscar that year, but the Academy predictably played it safe and chose something offensive only in its effusive inoffensiveness. Pressed awkwardly between dark comedy and serious character study, the film is filled to the brim with hokum and insincere sentimentality. Depressing as it might be, it’s not hard to see this being remade in the US with a quirky bent and its broad comedy played up for laughs.

Hirokazu Kore-eda’s 1998 film After Life is far more genuine in its exploration of mortality, and a far more rewarding experience over all.


3 thoughts on “Departures

  1. THANK you. I’ve been fighting a rearguard action against this maddening attempt at retrofitting Japanese culture with every last Hollywood sentimentality cliche ever since the damn thing came out here. One representative point – I could choose so many others – the cello music. There’s a rich repertoire of genuinely powerful music for solo cello. What does our hero play? Wall-to-wall elevator classics lite. Someone went out into the world and actively searched for music that would say “I feel emotion!” without in any way demanding a complex or musically literate response. No wonder it played so well in California.

    1. Glad you feel the same way, David! Did you get around to writing about the film? Completely agree with you about the music — so bland and uninspired!

      1. No, I never wrote about it… I can’t remember why. I have half a feeling I decided to ignore it in favour of something else out the same week. I sometimes wish I could write about all the films I see, but it’s entirely possible I’d go mad if I tried…

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