Monday, June 29, 2009

Movie Review: Okuribitio (Departures)

Some say "Okuribito" was a slow paced and predictable movie. In my opinion, pacing can very from movie to movie, but every movie is predictable nowadays. The fact of the matter is that originality is something that is almost dead. It's because of this that people need to figure out to film such predictable methods properly. If one can do that, than screw predictability. Now, a film can be cliche, which is totally different, as that revolves around something extremely trite and overly common. I'm sure your wondering which kind this film is.

"Okuribito" is film about orchestra cellist Daigo Kobayashi (Masahiro Motoki). When the orchestra he works for is dissolved, he forced to look at a new career choice, especially considering he is in debt, which is mostly due to the fact he bought an 18 million yen cello (which is roughly $180,000 to us). Daigo and his wife, Mika (Ryoko Hirosue) move to his old hometown of Yamagata, moving into a house left by his deceased mother. While there, he notices an ad for the "NK Agency," a nokan (encoffinment) business. He decided to check out the job, mistaking it for a travel agency (due to a misprint, which reads "assisting departures" rather than "assisting the departed). After meeting with the owner, Shoei Sasaki (Tsutomu Yamazaki) and being offered a 500,000 yen per month pay, Daigo decides to accept. Over time, he grows on the job, but people tell him to quit, calling it something shameful. Throughout the and confrontation, he is forced to make difficult choices, while going through a transformation process that gives him a better understanding of life, death, and acceptance.

What I Liked

The premise of the film felt original to me (although this is based on a book). The idea of dealing with death in a means in which one is responsible of taking care of was something that hasn't been used to my knowledge. The thought of focusing a film in one of the epicenter professions of death brings up questions of death in its greatest form, which strengthened the thematic elements of the film.

The themes themselves were properly expressed both in dialogue in imagery. The director made artful choices that were so well shot that one can't help but be entranced by the shots, as if it was made in a documentary fashion.

Of course, everyone reacts to death in different degrees, which this film showed in ways that are reflective while believable. Some reacted calmly, while others were forced to bicker amongst themselves, but all were deeply affected by such a thing. The diversity in seeing people attempt to cope with deaths of their loved ones always felt proper in placement and display.

I was actually intrigued by the the process and cultural ideals behind encoffening. The way it is done is done so in a respectful way, preserving the body in the highest possible form of dignity. Every time I saw it, it always drew my attention in.

Although the way the plot moves forward is formulaic (lets face it, it's hard to do otherwise), the way it was told was elegant and beautiful, which is the most important thing this film could have done. Daigo is constantly faced with life and death, which also makes him reflect on his own personal life, especially with a relationship problem he had with his father, who left him at an early age. Everything that happened had a purpose and was filmed in such a way that it all felt necessary, used to reflect on Daigo's enlightenment and enhance the emotional impact of what was trying to be conveyed.

Speaking of emotional impact, there is a moment in which many of the major characters surrounding Daigo are brought together and experience a revelation that changes their view of things. They way this scene was shot felt as if it had more care than some of the other scenes, acting as a concentrated emotional blast. Everyone was affected one way or another, bringing them together in a way so touching that I cried in the theater (and believe me, it was hard not to start bawling out loud). Not even the final scene could match this, despite being the most important part for Daigo.

The actors played the characters with finesse. Every character had an important role in this film, each one somehow creating an impact on Daigo one way or another. While certainly not the most original characters, they each had charm and good chemistry. Purpose, conflicts, and development make these characters enjoyable on the screen and very rarely cliche (if at all).

The movie is actually very humorous at times. Right away in the beginning, when we are introduced to the encoffening, something unexpected happens that I can't get into without absolutely ruining the humor and surprise of it all. The humor was very intelligent, coming from actions, dialogue, and even moments of charming innocence that never failed when it tried.

The music in this film was beautifully played. The cello was an instrument constantly played, but was done so in a soothing way that was subtlety complimented by other music. There were moments where it was basically just shots of him playing with various nature shots (which admittedly seemed strange at first, but the metaphors behind the images slowly became clear). Although some may find these pointless, I found these moments to be strangely relaxing.

What I Didn't Like

One thing I didn't like was Mika's overall reaction to Daigo's actions. She reacts to the debt as if it's nothing at all, although she's bothered by Daigo taking the encoffening job. Although she states that she did feel differently (and something in her eyes showed it in the beginning as well) about the move and such, it just didn't feel believable. There's something strange about being able to tolerate death but not an okay job choice.

Despite showing every other important moment in Daigo's growing as an encoffener, the director decided to leave out the first time he works on doing so by himself. He's called in and sets out... and then it shows him coming in the next day simply talking about it for a few seconds. I personally thought this was a rather odd choice and somewhat detracted from the narrative (although this was a trade-off for pacing).

There is a moment near the finale where a coworker of Daigo named Yuriko (Kimiko Yo) tries to relate herself to Daigo in terms of a situation to try and get him to see the other side of a personal problem he faces. Once again, I can't say what it is as this would ruin the overall impact of the finale itself. However, this was one openly cliched and contrived moment that annoyed me, albeit briefly. Thankfully, it was the only moment that really did so.

What Was a Mixed Bag

I'm not sure what it was about the pacing, but the way it was done so felt like a double edged sword. It constantly felt like it could have been trimmed down, but at the same time, all the shots felt necessary. The closest shots were some of the moments in which we see Daigo playing the cello. Although one might say that these moments were edited in a strange way and could be superfluous, I still feel that it would have been worse to take them out than to leave them in. I personally never felt bored or tired, but such pacing may bother some people more than it bothered me.

Another thing that may bother some people is the transition from comedy to seriousness. The opening scene is shot reflects the entire movie, being somewhat inconsistent instead of balancing out the pacing between the humor and drama. Once again, I was personally okay with this, but it can be somewhat annoying to some.


Okuribito was a movie that had me intrigued when I first heard about it. Although it only had a 72% on Rotten Tomatoes (with a 6.7 score), I felt this movie was so much better than that. The movie was rich in imagery and themes, and touches the idea of life and death in such a way that I can't help but wonder why some people didn't like this. Although there are some problems, I felt that they barely detracted from the overall experience of the film. If anything, they felt insignificant in comparison. Granted, if you have a trouble with slower paced films, you may have trouble sitting through this. However, I feel that if you can, the eventual payoff is more than worth the wait.

Sometimes humorous but always moving, "Okuribito" touches the ideas of life, death, and acceptance in beautiful and emotional way that will profoundly impact its viewers.

Score: 9/10

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