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Departures (Okuribito)

A movie released May 29, 2009

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4 ½ + Stars: Yojiro Takita's Award-Winning Film Explores a Grim Premise with Beautiful Sensibilities

  • Aug 3, 2009

Japanese films have always had the remarkable reputation of turning the simplest premise into something so full of moving emotions and sensibilities. Yojiro Takita’s multi-award winning film “DEPARTURES” (aka. Okuribito, 2008) is no different. There is a lot of excessive hype surrounding the film as it has almost nearly swept the Japanese Academy awards and has been awarded the Best Foreign film honor in the recent 2009 Oscars. No film can live up to the hype it has gotten, but I have to say it has earned each and every recognition; well deserving of the commercial success it had achieved in its native land. Yojiro Takita is also responsible for the award-winning samurai film "When the Last Sword is Drawn".
Daigo Kobayashi (Masahiro Motoki) is a cello player whose dream is shattered when the orchestra he is playing with goes broke. Left with no choice but to sell his prized cello, Daigo together with his wife Mika (beauteous Ryoko Hirosue) returns to his hometown to live in his mother’s old house. In need of a new job, Daigo responds to an ad in the local paper for a job in “Departures”, thinking that it may be related to travel. But much to his surprise and dismay, Daigo discovers that he had applied for a profession as an ‘Encofineer’; a man who performs the delicate and traditional Japanese ritual of preparing the bodies of the deceased for the departure to the next life--it pays quite well, and without even thinking about it, he accepts without even giving his wife the details of his new job.
Daigo is at first repulsed at the idea of touching the dead bodies but Mr. Sasaki (Tsutomu Yamazaki) carefully trains him and in time Daigo gets used to the job. He begins to find the delicate work to be rewarding when he experiences the joy and appreciation of the family members who had been left behind. However, Mika finally discovers his “disgusting profession” and asks him to quit but he refuses, which leads her to leave him. Even his childhood friend Yamashita (Tetta Sugimoto) advises him to find a better job.
Fate has a way of putting things back together, as Mika finally returns with the news that she is pregnant. But Daigo’s joy may be short lived as his past slowly catches up to him…
It is not often that we become privy to a film about the beautifying of corpses, director Takita takes on the grim subject matter and gives it a commercial charm and appeal. The direction is quite meticulous in exposing the world of the mortician as we become witnesses to the Japanese customs and traditions as to how they deal with their dead. Takita shows that the profession demands a certain amount of sensitivity as we see the different reactions of those left behind by the deceased; some are angry, some are funny, most are overwhelmed by grief and some are curiously joyful. In Daigo’s profession, there are no religious affiliation; they do what they do to preserve the memory of the deceased, remembering them as the way they used to be and not who they are in the present. 

           Daigo and Mika

It is a safe bet that a premise such as this may be unusual even for Japanese audiences and one of the film’s key to success is the way it executes its grim subject matter through some doses of subtle humor in the film’s first act. Writer Kundo Koyama and the direction by Takita meticulously eases the premise into the audience, as we were privy to Daigo and Sasaki’s encounter with an extra “thing” to a supposedly female corpse. We see Masahiro Motoki’s deadpan humor as he becomes repulsed by his first job, and just how he eventually becomes comfortable with his new career. Takita cleverly illustrates the short moments in the ceremony that our morticians get to know the deceased quite intimately.
After everything sinks in, then the emotional scenes begin to take hold, as we learn more of Daigo’s childhood, his problems with his wife’s disapproval of his new job and his anger towards his father who had left him while he was a child to run off with a younger woman. Now this is a commercial film and we know that eventually people close to Daigo will eventually come to respect what he does for a living, it is a little predictable but the journey with which the film gets to where it wishes to go is well-played that the screenplay becomes somewhat of a melancholy with a rhythm that just looks so beautiful. Mika (played by Ryoko Hirosue) is just so lovable as the diligent wife; she is just so full of love and trust that her character represents the goodness within the Japanese woman. It was touching to see Daigo perform a ceremony in his wife’s presence and director Takita carefully manipulates the camera work to show pure emotion. Takita also injects some sequences that are beautiful to awaken the emotion (sort of serves as a vanguard) as we see Daigo playing the cello on a hill as if he was reaching out again to his dreams. The film also has beautiful cinematography and emotion-inducing score to match its otherwise simple but grim premise to keep the film running at a brisk pace. 


The film has two significant scenes that seemed to induce quite a few sniffles, they were injected to give a twist that plays a significant part in Daigo’s life. The first one does provoke a lot of emotion; it is full of tear-inducing sequences that can definitely touch its audience. However, it does feel a little overlong that the second twist may lose some of the narrative impact to the inexperienced viewer. The two twists do work in unison in the screenplay but some may argue that Takita was working too hard to induce emotion working one twist right after the other. I didn’t find anything wrong with it and I thought it stuck to its sensibilities in reflecting just how life can sometimes throw you in for a curve.
The performances are quite good, Motoki (who won best actor in Japan) and Hirosue has some dynamic chemistry between them and the supporting characters made up of Sasaki, Yuriko (co-employee played by Kimiko Yo) and the woman (Kazuko Yoshiyuki) who runs a bath house plays their own significance in the script. I loved the way Yamazaki played Sasaki, it was like a cool and quiet boss as he always seemed to say “its fine.”
Despite some flaws in the screenplay that the film came dangerously close in becoming too sentimental, “Departures” is easily one of the best commercial films to come out from Japan. The last act will leave an impression that no matter how we see ourselves and others, death sometimes is the one thing that can bring a family together. The film’s biggest ace would have to come from its ability to induce the proper emotion at the right minute with such simplicity. Such critical acclaim will no doubt raise the film to unreasonable expectations, and while it may not change the course of Japanese cinema, it is not pretentious and never hides behind its beautiful visual style. The way to approach this film is with tempered expectations, so that the film can touch you in its journey that is both surprising and pleasurable.
Highly Recommended! [4 ½ + Stars]

Poster Region-3 Dvd cover Mika approves scene ceremony scene scene Daigo and Mika

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August 21, 2010
Great review WP, I keep hearing this film is sad, Sharrie and you seem to agree that this is a great film though.
February 14, 2010
I thought the film had a nice balance with the sentimental stuff, but can see your point. This film was worth the rating we gave it.
February 15, 2010
It did have some sentimental stuff but just not as heavy as one may expect.
September 19, 2009
Killer review, Woo. Very comprehensive and a lot of insight into the story. The plot reminds me a little bit of a French film I saw about a mortician who falls in love with the sister of one of the bodies he's working on. I also have to say that it's nice to see that a director doesn't get pigeon-holed in Japan the way they often do here in the U.S.. Takita would probably be limited to films in the martial arts and samurai genres, which in itself wouldn't be a bad thing, but placing a filmmaker into a specific category only dampens his or her imagination. Look at what happened when Brian De Palma strayed from his typical mystery and thriller genres and did a comedy: everyone panned it and he's lost his confidence as a director. Hopefully, Takita will be able to bounce back and forth between genres and do both samurai films and more conventional dramas... kind of like Kurosawa. ; )
September 19, 2009
I know what you mean. You know Takita made his debut in several Japanese pink films; actually a lot of them had their beginnings in such genre. Takita is definitely a director to watch out for as with Yoji Yamada, who made his name in his samurai trilogy (Twilight Samurai, Hidden Blade and Love and Honor) and is now getting into fact-based melodrama such as "Kabei Our Mother" (it's about a family's struggles in wartime Japan). It is indeed sad to see a director typed cast, Jet Li made a funny comment in accepting his best actor award for "The Warlords"...he said "...if I only knew I could act before, I never would've done that many action films." Speaking of Kurosawa, there's a reviewer out there in ammie who gives every Kurosawa movie 1-2 stars and then gives bad Asian movies 4-5. I cannot imagine how....I guess being too famous can make folks hate the director. I shall return with more Kurosawa, Kobayashi and the original movie "Last Samurai" (nope, the 70's Japanese original and not Tom Cruise's)
August 06, 2009
Another very recent release, huh? Do you know anything about the dvd release? Although that still won't tell me anything about NetFlix availability. And speaking about tempered expectations, have you decided on a Bollywood flick yet? I'm afraid that if you have a bad experience you'll never have another.
August 07, 2009
I checked and the official U.S. release is scheduled for December 2009. I have my eye on checking out ASOKA first since a friend of mine owns it. I also am interested in Hey RAM because of your descriptions; it sounds like it's my style. I'll drop you a line if I get a little lost. Sorry for the late replies, Lunch is now blocked at my work computers...
August 07, 2009
I'd go with ASOKA first just because it is available and won't cost you anything. I'll have a review out of of HEY RAM probably by the end of the day. HEY RAM IS A VERY SLOW PACED FILM though and may be difficult for an action hound like you to get through. That's one reason why I might recommend going with ASOKA first too. Plus its more of a reall Bollywood experience. They say if you want a film that deals with the same subject as HEY RAM its better to go with Deepak Mehta's film FIRE which has none of HEY RAM's flaws.
More Departures (Okuribito) reviews
review by . August 20, 2010
posted in ASIANatomy
Until you're ready, don't watch it...
It took me 3 seatings to finish this movie. And, it's not because it's boring. It's because I was neither ready nor had time to see it. In short, it spanned almost 2+ years before I was truly able to appreciate this movie in its entity.      I had heard about it from a colleague way back when I was still in the office working in Singapore. I was told by a pretty old man so I didn't really seriously thought about it. Then I was emailed a link by a friend and was …
Quick Tip by . November 08, 2011
posted in ASIANatomy
Yojiro Takita's winner of best foreign film in the Academy awards. The Japanese really know how to make a film with such a depressing theme into something uplifting and yet, heart-breaking.      see full review here.               
review by . June 23, 2010
Let's not dance around words like "thought provoking" "insightful", "existential" - Okuribito isn't your typical arty-farty movie with beautiful scenes, cryptic monologues and hidden meanings; it has a certain quality that makes it a joy to watch: it's accessible.      That's right - no more staring at the screen wondering what the protagonist standing in his underpants in front of a mirror to the sound of clockwork means. Hooray!   …
Quick Tip by . August 20, 2010
posted in ASIANatomy
It was slow and humorous in the beginning, however, it turns out to be a powerful and moving experience. For those with an open mind... and if you haven't got one, try it, you might find that you're not so immune afterall ;-)
Quick Tip by . July 14, 2010
A musician learns about himself after taking a job as an encoffiner.
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Daigo Kobayashi is a devoted cellist in an orchestra that has just been dissolved and now finds himself without a job. Daigo decides to move back to his old hometown with his wife to look for work and start over. He answers a classified ad entitled "Departures" thinking it is an advertisement for a travel agency only to discover that the job is actually for a "Nokanshi" or "encoffineer," a funeral professional who prepares deceased bodies for burial and entry into the next life. While his wife and others despise the job, Daigo takes a certain pride in his work and begins to perfect the art of "Nokanshi," acting as a gentle gatekeeper between life and death, between the departed and the family of the departed. The film follows his profound and sometimes comical journey with death as he uncovers the wonder, joy and meaning of life and living.
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Genre: Drama
Release Date: May 29, 2009
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Runtime: 2hrs 11min

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