Much like its American contemporary Sunshine Cleaning, Yôjirô Takita's Departures uses the death-care industry as framework for a transformative discovery of self. But while Sunshine Cleaning had its protagonists scrubbing grimy death scenes, Departures' Daigo (Masahiro Motoki) finds his identity through the elegant, serene Japanese nokan ceremony of "encoffinment."
A failed professional cellist, Daigo learns the careful art of washing, dressing, and decorating bodies for burial or cremation. There is an episode in which he retches, and another where he finds a penis on a beautiful young woman's corpse, but the film's strength and obsession isn't humor—it's conveying the tender, dignified poetry of the ritual. Daigo faces problems as a result of his newfound calling: While he quickly comes to understand the honor in his work, his wife (Ryoko Hirosue) is so appalled that she leaves when he refuses to quit. Likewise, a childhood friend refuses to associate with him. These cultural inconsistencies, unfortunately, are under-explored and wind up ringing hollow.
While moving and carefully done, Departures is hardly revelatory—it sticks to tear-jerking iterations on circle-of-life themes. As the Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Film—it ran against effective groundbreakers like Waltz with Bashir—Departures' greatest profundity reveals more about the questionable decisions being made by the Academy than those of love, death, or life.