Two men in dark suits announce “We are here for the encoffinment” in one of the first scenes of the soft-spoken Japanese dramedy Departures. For a moment, you wonder if something was lost in the translation of Japanese dialogue into English subtitles. But yes, the boss and apprentice of the NK Agency did mean “encoffinment,” although they usually use the term “casketing,” referring to a ritualistic cleaning and display of a recently deceased body before its removal by an undertaker.
According to Departures, winner of 2009's Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, casketing was a tradition handled by Japanese families that evolved into a specialty business catering to survivors too squeamish to do it themselves. It certainly comes as a surprising career option to Daigo (Masahiro Motoki), an unemployed cellist who returns to his hometown looking for work. He answers a vague but promising classified ad, but is shocked to discover that the words “work with departures” were supposed to read “work with the departed.”
Departures proves reminiscent of the first season of HBO’s “Six Feet Under” in the way Nate Fisher found his true calling at the family mortuary business. At first, Daigo recoils at the prospect of touching corpses, and finds himself in darkly comedic situations, like when he serves as a model body for his boss’s instructional video. Funeral-related work invites such shame in Japan (according to the film) that Daigo conceals his true profession from his perky young bride (Ryoko Hirosue), leading to elaborate misunderstandings.
Where Departures' plot frequently leans toward farce, director Yôjirô Takita sets such a muffled, mournful tone that the initially comedic moments seem sharply out of place. Inspired by a memoir called Coffinman, Departures offers a fascinating glimpse of how another culture handles death. Tsutomu Yamazaki anchors the film as Daigo’s boss, who accepts death with impressive equanimity. (Film fans with long memories may recognize the actor as the Clint Eastwood-style hero of the legendary foodie flick Tampopo.) A predictable subplot, however, consists of Daigo finding peace with his mother’s death and his father’s lifelong absence. The story holds few surprises over Departures' 130-minute running time.
If overlong, Departures offers a perfectly fine, middle-of-the-road film that would go largely overlooked had it not prevailed at the Oscars over some superb and relevant competition, particularly The Class and Waltz With Bashir. Perhaps the more provocative, polarizing films split the vote and made room for Departures to steal the prize. Death always wins out in the end.