The following film review has been taken from Kev Gilvear’s excellent Cinema Review, which completely mirrors my own feelings on Departures.
When Takita Yojiro voiced his disbelief upon winning ‘Best Foreign Film’ at this year’s Academy Awards, it was easy to understand where he was coming from. Certainly the underdog in a select chosen few, Departures traverses some serious territory when it comes to deconstructing the time-honoured tradition of Noukanshi, literally meaning “to encoffin”. The Nokanfu, as it was written by Shinmon Aoki in 1996 - his experiences as a mortician from which Departures is based - is bestowed the task of preparing the dead for the long journey that awaits them in the afterlife. This involves a usual procedure of cleansing and re-dressing which can be readily associated with many cultures around the world; but there’s something very unique in the artistry of what these chosen few people manage. By its very nature the profession is one largely considered taboo in its homeland, but on the face of Yojiro’s compelling tale it’s hopefully one that will earn the respect and understanding it rightfully deserves as the director instils the belief that we should never judge a book by its cover.
For Daigo Kobayashi (Motoko Masahiro) he’s about to be thrust into a situation he’d never have imagined in a million years. When his new career turn as a professional cellist goes down the toilet after the disbandment of his orchestra, he must quickly think up a new way of securing an income, which includes selling his newly purchased and prized cello. But with few other prospects he doesn’t know what else to do with his life. He decides with his doting wife Mika (Hirosue Ryoko) to start up a new life in his old rural hometown. There he spots an advertisement which states nothing more than “Helping with Journeys”. Only it’s not quite the travel agency he expected.
Upon arrival he meets the elderly Ikuei Sasaki (Yamazaki Tsutomu ) and his secretary Yuriko (Kimiko Yo). Sasaki employs him on the spot, showing a complete disinterest in his professional resume. He offers him a tantalising salary before Daigo can even ask what the job is. Not many people stay past asking such a question, and sure enough Daigo is ready to bolt when he learns that he’ll be a Noukanshi’s assistant. The need for money proves too much for him though; Daigo accepts the offer and returns home. He keeps his wife in the dark, knowing that she’ll disapprove of his new profession, but it’s not long before she does learn of his activities and demands that he quit for a “respectable” job. With his marriage on the rocks, old friends beginning to shun him, and the shattered remainders of an awkward upbringing creeping its way back into his life, Daigo must ultimately decide what is right for his own well being.
Although Shinmon Aoki had already expressed his disappointment with regard to certain sacrifices being made to the script (he ended up refusing to have his name or book associated with the credits), he has nonetheless spoken well of the film’s success. Personal ties aside I imagine it’s difficult not to appreciate this cinematic account, which manages to comfortably nestle itself between factual documentation and social drama. While the narrative is there to be exploited, and indeed there is no shortage of timely twists from writer Kundo Koyama, the overall feeling here is that Takita Yojiro, who has enjoyed previous success with his far louder and spiritually fantastical Onmyoji and Ashura, has struck a delicate balance of good humour and heartfelt poignancy. More importantly, Departures doesn’t morbidly dwell on death despite its seemingly gloomy facade, but rather in fact celebrates life itself.
The tale is told in a largely reflective manner, cleverly juxtaposing the existence of its central protagonist with that of the philosophical ideals that his newfound job entails: that life is a journey and death signals its destination - but what is it that we’re meant to do with the time between? It’s through entering the homes of complete strangers and diverse families, that Daigo slowly comes to terms with the failings of his own upbringing and the prospects of abandoned dreams, as destiny plays no small part in leading him toward his ultimate fate. Koyama’s themes are diverse and naturally humanistic, which allows for a tremendous amount of sympathy to be stirred as our emotions are triggered at regular intervals. Skilfully though, director Yojiro earns our empathy amidst all this personal loss by downplaying its tragedy, simply because of its natural appointment; there’s an inherent respect here undoubtedly aimed toward every person watching who has at some point lost a loved one through various circumstances. While Daigo’s awkward situation - which inevitably befalls onto his wife and the local community - lends the narrative a required coherence, it’s the masterfully staged ceremonies themselves that tug on our hearts in bringing together families, highlighting bonds and conveying how one life can be affected for the better through another. But Departures also proves to be a solid exercise in demonstrating the importance of key scoring, and it’s none other than Joe Hisaishi, famed worldwide for his Ghibli compositions, whose beautiful undercurrents, with their cello accompaniments resonates through the soul.
Terrifically acted throughout, with lead Motoki Masahiro delivering such a passionate and beautifully understated performance for what was to be his pet project, Departures rightfully deserves to be the toast of this year’s Oscars. An emotionally rewarding feature which reminds us that no matter where we’re from or what we do in life, we’re all the same underneath and should do well to appreciate the little time we have on this planet.
PresentationPresented in 1080p at 1.85:1 this isn’t destined to be used as a reference quality willy-waving disc to show off your home cinema set up to friends, that’s for sure! There’s an all-pervasive, fuzzy layer of thick grain blanketing the image and the transfer is noticeably dark with rather underwhelming shadow detail. Image detail in general isn’t exactly at the level most people expect from a contemporary film in HD, but it does at least look reasonably sharper than what standard definition allows for. The colour scheme is rather muted and earthen tones tend to dominate, which combined with the lack of brightness makes skin tones look a little drab. There’s also a fair amount of little spots, flecks and scratches in the print.
The thing is though; I can’t really fault Arrow Films for most of these problems as it seems to be an accurate reflection of their master, given that the burnt in English subtitles would suggest a theatrical print was used. Edge Enhancement is a bit of an omnipresent problem but I expect this too is there in their theatrical prints, so if you was lucky enough to catch Departures in UK theatres I doubt the Blu-ray image will disappoint. The AVC encode has a healthy bit rate that averages out to 24.96Mbps and the encoding is again like every other aspect of this transfer: decent but not great. There is some mini-blocking and banding, but given the grainy nature of the print the noise isn’t too excessive.
There are no English audio options on this disc, just the original Japanese in either DTS-HD MA 5.1 or DTS 2.0. Much like the transfer the DTS-HD audio is rather restrained and probably reflects the low key nature of the film’s production, but even so I can’t help but feel that it is a little less expressive than it could have been. Don’t get me wrong, it offers a pleasant aural experience with solid dynamics, clear audible dialogue, and reasonably deep (but a tad loose) bass levels; it just never seems to open up when you’d expect it to – IE: during the musical interludes: particularly the orchestral rendition of Ode to Joy at the start of the film, which doesn’t sound as enveloping as I would have hoped. There isn’t a tremendous amount separating the lossless DTS-HD track and the DTS 2.0, just that the lossy track sounds a little more restricted and less aggressive.
Sadly the English subtitles are burnt into the print, but they’re free from any major grammatical issues.
ExtrasOnly three options here, but they’re certainly worth a look. All extras are presented in Japanese DTS2.0 with removable English subs where needed except for the trailer which has non-removable subs, also the Making of and Encoffinment featurettes may technically be shown in 720p but both have clearly been taken from an interlaced standard definition source.
The Making of Departures (34m:23s, 720p)
No great surprises here, just a well structured and informative featurette with an unnamed female narrator setting the scene and providing information as we see footage of a number of scenes being filmed, all edited around interview footage with the cast and crew taken from the Press Conference held during the film’s 2008 premiere in Yamagata. You can really appreciate how much preparation Masahiro Motoki made for the role of Daigo from the footage here and we even briefly get to see him playing the cello in front of a live audience for the first time during the Yamagata premiere. He’s clearly not up to professional standard, but the fact he learnt to play the cello at all for the role is pretty damn impressive. Also tucked away in here is an all-too-brief interview with Jo Hisaishi, and towards the end we have snippets from the film’s various premiere tours and international film festival award wins, although it seems this featurette was made before Departures’ Oscars win as that isn’t featured at all.
Encoffinment (14m:10s, 720p)
This is the full unedited footage of Masahiro Motoki performing the cleansing and redressing ritual that’s partially shown repeatedly in the film, performed silently with no dialogue. The shortened version of this scene is shown during Departure’s end credits.
Departures Trailer (01m:49s, 1080p)
Pretty self-explanatory what this one is, the film’s theatrical trailer shown in 1080p to the same standards as the main feature.