A different kind of travel film.
"Because I could not stop for Death, He kindly stopped for me . . ." Emily Dickinson.
Departures is the best encoffineer film I have ever seen. But then this is the only one I've ever seen. Although it is the best international film I have seen this year, it doesn't count because it won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film of last year, 2008.
Regardless, Departures will be one of the best films you will see any year. Diego (Mashiro Motoki) has lost his job as a cellist with a dissolved symphony orchestra in Tokyo and must return to his home in the suburbs to find a job to support his upbeat wife, Mika (Ryoko Hirouse). He finds one as a "Nokanshi" or encoffineer, a professional who prepares the body for its departure into the next life. For the Japanese, this is an unspeakable job, but eventually, under the expert care of his savvy boss, Mr. Sasaki (Tsutomu Yamazaki), Diego achieves a level of artistry he never quite reached as a cellist.
Director Yojiro Takita composes his shots as if he too were an encoffineer lovingly preparing his lyrical film. Like this review, Takita begins comically, showing Diego preparing an unusual body with passionate responses from family. Yet as the film progresses and Diego struggles with the prejudice against his profession and his growing affection for it, the humor gives way to the seriousness of the subject and an implicit argument about art, individual fulfillment, and the complex relationship between the living and the dead.
Anyone who finds the thought of touching a corpse revolting, much less witnessing encoffineering, should see this film for how lovingly a dear one can be prepared and how important the ceremony can be to the family's and friends' satisfaction that the loved one is ready for whatever journey comprises the next stage of "life."
I might even call this a romance as I think of Diego and his wife, and Diego as loving gatekeeper to the families and their beloveds. If you see it, you'll know why it won an Oscar and why encoffineering may be the most important departure any life-traveling family could take.