October 16th, 2009 Film, Film Reviews, Moviehole

It’s easy to forget the experience we miss the most in watching a movie is touch, taste and smell, things so fundamental to our experience in the real world we hardly pay conscious attention to them.

If we ever achieve true virtual reality-like sensory cinema where you can feel and taste everything as well as seeing and hearing it, think of those films like Tibetan drama Samsara, Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain or Alfonso Arau’s Like Water For Chocolate, movies with such sensual imagery you’ll be able to wallow in them like a hot bath.

Another is Yojiro Takita’s Departures. Rarely is the act of touch so reverently pored over and celebrated as casketeer-in-training Daigo (Masahiro Motoki) performs the highly ritualistic and — yes — beautiful task of preparing corpses to be shut in their coffins.

He’s a cellist who thinks the world is telling him to forget his aspirations of making it big when the orchestra he works for is unexpectedly shut down. Seeing no other option, Daigo suggests to his pretty wife Mika (Ryoko Hirosue) that they move to his childhood town where they can live in the house his mother left him and look for work.

Answering an employment ad he thinks is for a tour guide, Daigo meets the enigmatic casketeer Sasaki (Tsukayo Yamashita) — contracted by undertakers to prepare the dead for burial — who hires him on the spot for a better salary than he could hope for anywhere else.

Daigo stumbles from one job to the other, trying to hold down the contents of his stomach and learning much more than he thinks he is while keeping the shameful job secret from everyone. But he can’t help being fascinated by the dignity and sensitivity the old man offers mourning families, or the soft but confident touch he brings to his work. Watching him (and later Daigo) performing the ritual dressing, setting and application of make-up on the dead feels like so many other things the Japanese consider an art such as their food or writing.

Still keeping the job a secret from everyone including his wife, Daigo secretly wonders if he’s found his true calling, finding the artistry and beauty in preparing the dead he sought from the cello.

It’s a hard movie to watch, full of long sequences of silence. Not all of them are of the beautiful preparation scenes and it ends up feeling much longer than its two-hour, 10-minute running time. It takes a long time to make its points but director Takita is happy to take his sweet time to do so. The approach offers the starkly sensual experience but as a story it takes a long time to start, happen and end.

Japan’s foreign language entry into the 2009 Oscars, Departures is a beautiful, high quality film that projects a sense of touch you can almost feel yourself. It’ll put a lot of viewers used to the quick set-ups and pay-offs of Hollywood off, but it’s more like Japanese culture itself, where the best things aren’t quick fixes but arts practiced and perfected over time which become second nature but no less beautiful for their familiarity.

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