There's something discomfiting about the American funeral business. Smooth funeral directors, their careful euphemisms, their graveside AstroTurf - they can make the already difficult process of mourning downright surreal.
But when Japanese people learn about the work of Daigo (Masahiro Motoki), the young man at the center of the generously entertaining film Departures, their reactions go far beyond discomfiture. Daigo is hired by undertakers to encoffin corpses - to ritually clean and groom them, then put them in caskets. "You make your living from the dead," hisses an angry client. "Aren't you ashamed?" asks Daigo's wife Mika (Ryoko Hirosue).
Daigo is indeed ashamed, which is why at first he hides his work from Mika. But the money is good, and he needs money. As the story begins, Daigo is playing cello in a symphony performance. The Tokyo concert hall is mostly empty, though, and afterward Daigo learns the orchestra is being dissolved. He sells his cello, and he and Mika move to his hometown, where they live in the house his mother left when she died.
A misunderstanding sets the plot in motion. Daigo responds to a classified ad that says "departures." He thinks it is for a travel agency. But there was a misprint - the ad should have read "the departed." "Can someone who's never seen a corpse do this job?" asks Daigo incredulously of his new boss, who is played with fine comic understatement by Tsutomu Yamazaki. "Fate brought you here," the boss says.
There is much talk of fate in Departures, which won an Oscar and was declared the audience's favorite narrative movie at the 2009 Wisconsin Film Festival. Departures is the rare sort of film that carefully locates sweet humor in solemn topics like death and troubled families.
Director Yjir Takita also finds beauty in Daigo's encoffinment ritual (despite the fact that Daigo's first, amusingly revolting gig involves a badly decomposed corpse). In a series of taut, fascinating scenes, Daigo and the boss go to the homes of mourners, where the bodies await. The men explain what they are doing as they carefully perform their tasks - wiping skin, applying makeup. The mourners are mostly distraught, but they watch with curiosity. There is sadness in these scenes, but there also are darkly funny moments, as when a ceremony is interrupted by a brawl.
Alongside the story of Daigo's new job are gradually emerging details of his childhood. Daigo seethes with resentment at his father, who abandoned the family when Daigo was young. Yet at his old home Daigo is surrounded by reminders of his father, including his piles of Haydn and Schubert records. In moving sequences, Daigo plays his tiny childhood cello, a relic of the time his father sent him to lessons.
Departures has poignant lessons to teach about dirty jobs and honesty, about bitter memories and, not least, about the nature of the funeral business. It's probably the best sentimental comedy about corpses you'll see all year.