Rating: * * * *
Verdict: Sentimental and formulaic but polished and affecting.
Among the contenders for best foreign film at this year's Academy Awards were two intellectually provocative and formally innovative masterpieces: Waltz With Bashir and The Class, from Israel and France respectively. Perhaps they split the smart vote and allowed the surprise victory of this sweetly whimsical but entirely predictable Japanese entry - but the notorious sentimentality of the conservative Academy voters must also come under suspicion.
Departures is reportedly the most conspicuously arthouse work by a director who made his name in soft-core porn and is noted for his undemanding commercial output, and it bears saying that it's arthouse-lite. It will doubtless do well commercially - and it deserves to since, for all its limitations, it's a freshly observed, finely crafted and often affecting film - but it's a very long way from being the best non-English-language movie of 2008.
Its main character Daigo (Motoki) is a cellist in a privately owned orchestra who finds himself out of a job (and having to sell his beloved cello) when the boss goes bust. Down on his luck, he and wife Mika (Hirosue) head back north to his small hometown where they take up residence in the bar his recently deceased mother left him.
With slightly irritating implausibility, Daigo answers a job ad for a firm which deals in "departures", thinking it must be a travel agency. But it's an undertaker, more specifically, a business that deals with "encoffinment", the austerely ritualised and theatrical process of washing and dressing the body in front of the grieving family before it is handed over for cremation.
Director Takita is not above having fun with the comic potential of the young man's predicament and the early stages of Daigo's employment - particularly when a gorgeous dead woman turns out to be only two of those three things - are played for laughs which seem forced and slightly juvenile.
But there's a serious undercurrent too: Daigo conceals the nature of his work from his wife, assuming (correctly as it transpires) that she will be horrified. Yet we quickly sense that Daigo feels compelled to continue, not just from a sense of duty, but because the job awakens unresolved feelings about his father who abandoned the family when he was just a boy.
Located as it is on the boundary between death and life, the film packs a powerful emotional punch even when it feels formulaic. And the story arc, which moves from goofy to something approaching sublime, proves touching in unexpected ways even when you can see a mile off how it's going to end up.
Excellent supporting performances (Yamazaki as the inscrutable boss and Yo as the hard-bitten receptionist) and a lush soundtrack (apart from a motif that sounds exasperatingly like Danny Boy) add up to a polished package. It's a worthwhile film, in parts a good one. But Oscar?
Cast: Masahiro Motoki, Ryoko Hirosue, Tsutomu Yamazaki, Kimiko Yo
Director: Yojiro Takita
Running time: 130 mins
Rating: M - In Japanese with English subtitles