A Tokyo orchestra tears through Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” to a half-empty house. Afterward, when the musicians hear that their proprietor has a few words to say, it’s not an exaggeration: “The orchestra is dissolved,” he mutters, bowing.
If you think this year’s surprise Oscar winner Departures plans on maintaining such emotional reserve for long, you really don’t know from awards bait. Eventually growing into a full-throated grief mop, Yojiro Takita’s melodrama sends tailspinning cellist Daigo (Motoki) and his ultrasupportive wife, Mika (Hirosue), out to the wintry burbs, where some inherited rent-free property awaits them, along with a want ad for an agency offering “departures”—actually a job performing the traditional act of “encoffinment,” i.e., artful corpse preparation.
There’s a beautiful lure to these Asian mortician rites, the grieving family seated before the corpse as it is caressed into its final posture. And the idea of a musician’s delicate hands converted into those of a spiritual gatekeeper is a poetic one. Daigo keeps the specific source of his new income from his wife; as he blooms into a deeper purpose, he is guided by his dignified tradesman of a boss, Sasaski (Yamazaki), and that should be enough trajectory for a recessionary fable.
But the movie throws in more morbid developments than a horror convention: a long-estranged father, an aging bathhouse matriarch, other cute oldsters with expiration dates on their foreheads. As Miyazaki composer Joe Hisaishi bathes the proceedings in Morricone sweetness, the parade of parental tears and confessions undermines the exquisiteness. Departures is a crier at funerals; it works, a little shamelessly, and leaves Ozu-like restraint far behind.—Joshua Rothkopf