Thinking it was a good career investment, Daigo Kobayashi bought his cello for 1.8 million yen. But when the cellist loses his job, it was cello goodbye. The humbled Daigo heads back to his hometown, with his wife in tow, for a life do-over. He responds to a dubious “departures” ad in the paper, thinking it’s for a travel agency. Fooled again, Daigo finds the job entails ushering the dead to their resting place. He swallows his pride and takes the position.

With an annual salary of 500,000 yen, Daigo will work as an assistant. He’ll be involved in a Japanese ritual of prepping a corpse before burial or cremation. Like a sombre magician, Daigo must perform in front of the deceased’s family, discreetly clean the body, dress it up, and glam or shave its face.

Indeed, the ritual itself is mesmerizing to watch, even poignant at times. It has a serene art to it, yet the movie also brings a macabre glee to the act. The first shown ritual has Daigo widening his eyes when he stumbles upon a surprise while wiping a body clean. The movie should be commended for finding humor in a grim and sorrowful setting, but the screwball skew really screws up the movie’s tone.

At first, I smiled but then, the humor became overdone. Its sneakiness is all too apparent for its singular silly slant is fooling its protagonist and setting him up for awkward, unbearable situations. This would be okay if Daigo deserves to be the butt of a joke, but the movie miscalculates Masahiro Motoki’s grounded portrayal. The actor makes Daigo so likable and earnest that I was really rooting for him. As a consequence, with no villain personified, the screenplay’s puppetry becomes the thing I was rooting against. When Daigo ponders as to why this unwanted life is all happening to him, he gets a no-help response from his seemingly wise boss: it’s fate. Uh-huh. Sure. I call it story manipulation. For all the respect Daigo shows to the dead, it’s ironic how the movie kicks Daigo towards the conclusion.

Maybe the movie would have worked had it been forthright in being a comedy. But with a melancholy music, slow pacing, and a softly uttered voice-over, the movie presents itself as a drama and the imbalance in tone is frustrating. I’m not advocating that the movie restricts itself into one genre, but its effort to combine two proved to be deadly. Upsetting as it is, with its scheming story and horrid execution, “Departures” is by no means a fiasco. I’ll just let it go, like Daigo who let the dead go.

Grade: C

Masahiro Motoki
Tsutomu Yamazaki
Ryoko Hirosue
Kazuko Yoshiyuki
Written by
Kundo Koyama
Directed by
Yojiro Takita
Rated PG-13 for thematic material