Watching Japanese: 'Departures'
CHANNEL SURFING - Althea Lauren Ricardo () - July 12, 2011 - 12:00am

I was first introduced to Japanese films in university. I took a class under Marra PL Lanot, Literature in Film. We read stories and novels, then watched and discussed their film adaptations. After each screening, we were required to submit critical papers. One of the first stories we read were Ryunosuke Akutagawa's "In a Grove," after which we watched Rashomon. Prior to that, the only Japanese movies I'd been exposed to were the feature-length versions of cartoons I'd watched as a child, like Astroboy and Candy, Candy!

I loved Rashomon, and I became an instant fan of Japanese films. Unfortunately, I've had little time to seek out Japanese films and watch them as much as I'd want to. I think the last Japanese film I watched was the original version of The Ring. So, when I heard about Ega Sai, the Japanese Film Festival, on Facebook I cleared out a weekend for a couple of films. The lines were so long, so I only ended up with two. But what wonderful films I watched!

Among all the films being shown this month, Departures is, perhaps, the most popular. It won Best Foreign Language Film in the 2009 Academy Awards. Loosely based on an autobiographical book "Coffinman: The Journal of a Buddhist Mortician," this film tells the story of a cellist, Daigo Kobayashi (portrayed by Masahiro Motoki), who suddenly loses his job when the Tokyo orchestra that finally hired him closed down. Since he'd had a hard time finding his orchestra job in the first place, and his talent isn't exactly top of the line, he and his wife, Mika (Ryoko Hirosue) decide to move back to his hometown, to live in the house his mother had left for him.

Back in the hometown, Daigo answers an ad for a job that involves "departures," and, thinking it was for a travel agency job, he applies. The boss, Sasaki (Tsutomu Yamakazi), hires him after just one interview question, "Will you work hard?" Then, he gives Daigo an advance. After which, Daigo finds out the job involves preparing corpses for "encoffination"--or, putting them in their coffins for burial.

The film explores beautifully Daigo's journey from an average professional cellist to an excellent professional funeral director, and the role of destiny in one's life.

There are many reasons I would recommend this film. First, it shows something new about Japan: the tradition of "encoffination." A lot is known about other Japanese rituals, but I didn't know that the old tradition of encoffining was such a beautiful, complex, solemn ceremony. Little is known about it, I believe, because death seems to be a taboo subject in Japan. Director Yojiro Takita handles the subject so well, making the film both hilarious and emotional, even with its dead bodies galore.

Second, Masahiro Motoki turns out an Oscar-worthy performance as Daigo. He plays the cellist like a professional (he learned it for the role) and handles corpses as if he had been preparing bodies his entire life (he learned the craft under a professional funeral director). In fact, according to an article I read online, the cello-playing scenes were taken without cuts, and he received a standing ovation from the film crew after the shooting of scene in which Daigo prepares a body. I've made a mental note to look up his other work—and make time for it!

Third, Ryoko Hirosue is just the cutest. (But this may not be reason enough for many of you. But, I swear, she is.)

Finally, as I said, the film beautifully explores the role of destiny in one's life. The cliche is when a door closes, a window opens. I've always found that objectionable—why a window, and not another door? If one big thing goes away, should you settle for a smaller one?

In the film, what starts out as a hole abruptly punched through a wall can become a window can become ornately designed double doors that open up to a life for which you never planned. Daigo eventually hears the same beautiful song he played as a cellist in the intricate art of enconffination, and the path he is on becomes clearly the path he is destined to take. Even his wife Mika, who is ashamed of his job at first, sees him at work and sees him as if he were playing for the world's best orchestra.

Perhaps it was timely for me to watch Departures too. I'd been rethinking writing as a full-time career, and wondering if I should go for an MBA and focus on management. It's the kind of decision that old people look back on as a crucial turning point in their lives: The day I gave up writing professionally to do something else that may (or may not be) my destiny.

I'm still at a crossroads. But watching Departures, I've come to see that what may not seem like it at first may still, also, be art.

Catch Ega Sai at the Ayala Center on August 2 to 7. Email your comments to alricardo@yahoo.com. You can also visit my personal blog at http://althearicardo.blogspot.com. You can text your comments again to (63)917-9164421.

ACADEMY AWARDS ASTROBOY AND CANDY AYALA CENTER BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM BUDDHIST MORTICIAN CATCH EGA SAI DAIGO FILM MASAHIRO MOTOKI RYOKO HIROSUE
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