Departures suffers for its DV photography. Suffers. Hamada Takeshi cannot figure out how to light for the video and, as a result, the film never looks good. Maybe if director Takita were somehow taking it into account, but no, Takita just pretends it doesn’t look like an ornate Hi8 camcorder production.
With some competent mise-en-scène, Departures might be able to get away with its other big problems. Though the score—composed by Joe Hisaishi—definitely part of the wanting audiovisual tone—would also need to upgrade. Otherwise it’s just a disaster third act and middling acting from its leads, sometimes due to the script, sometimes due to Takita not directing them, sometimes just the actors.
The film’s about failed cellist Motoki Masahiro returning to his hometown after his latest failure. Except Departures opens in a flash forward revealing the film’s actually going to be about Motoki becoming an encoffiner and the antics of the job. An encoffiner is a class of mortician who prepares the body to be placed in the coffin, including doing makeup, usually with the family watching. The film immediately establishes it’s a solemn, ritualistic, respectful ceremony.
And then veers into transphobia as a joke, though who knows how the scene would play if Motoki were capable of emoting. He’s capable of reflecting, with Takita setting up the object, event, or person for Motoki to respond to with reflection, but Motoki can’t reflect without stimulus.
Then the film flashes back to Motoki’s latest orchestra collapsing (he went with a bad one because he’s not very good) and him having to convince wife Hirosue Ryôko they should move to his hometown. There’s no subplot about returning to the hometown outside running into old friend Sugimoto Tetta, who’ll end up shunning him for being in the funeral trade, but Departures avoids a “returning home” plot for Motoki like the plague. Maybe it just cut. Like when he finds out coworker Yo Kimiko worked for Motoki’s mom for years before she died and he doesn’t tell her the connection. Motoki’s got no interest in the dead single mom who sacrificed all to raise him. He just obsesses on his dad leaving when he was five because dudes.
He’s going to have a terrible arc with Hirosue, who seems utterly personality-less (she just giggles for the first half of the movie), only to discover she’s actually got lots of thoughts she hasn’t been sharing because they’re have screwed up the narrative. Hirosue’s not good. She also doesn’t get a single good scene in the film. They cut away from potentially good scenes occasionally, but usually she doesn’t even have them set up. It’s mildly annoying.
The real star is Yamazaki Tsutomu, the encoffining boss, who hires Motoki for his initial gumption and is convinced Motoki will be great at the job for some reason. Also Motoki can’t remember what his dad looks like so is it impossible Yamazaki’s his dad? No, not impossible. It’s a mystery to be solved it turns out, because Koyama Kundô’s script goes for the predictable and obvious every single time. Sure, sometimes there’s a skipped scene to finish a character arc, but you can always guess what would’ve happened. I guess at least Departures isn’t patronizing… but it’s almost stranger it isn’t.
Yamazaki is great. Motoki is middling. Every time you want to cut Motoki some slack because the direction and photography is wanting… you realize Yamazaki is excelling under the same conditions.
Then there’s Hisaishi’s score, which you might think would leverage a lot of cello. Nope. Piano. Even during scenes where Motoki is playing the cello onscreen, eventually there’s some kind of non-diegetic accompaniment. It’s like… pick an instrument you at least want to have run the score. There’s no reason Motoki couldn’t have been a mediocre pianist. It also would’ve made for a more visually interesting scene with he sits alone outside playing to nature.
Departures is what happens when you don’t balance your character study right. And you don’t have the technicals down. And you don’t have the right leads.
But Yamazaki is outstanding and there are a bunch of great ideas. Just with a muddy result.