31 January 2010


As some of you may be aware, the Academy Awards are fast approaching. Tomorrow, February 2nd, the Oscar nominees will be announced. Ballots will be released, tallied, and so forth in preparation for the ceremonies on March 7th. We're entering the time when people will begin to ask me, as someone who studies film, who I think will win, or at the very least, who I want to win. Of course, when it comes down to it, I care very little. The Academy Awards and I disagree on many, many points. Very rarely will a film I truly enjoyed appear as a nominee, and should I ever be happy to see one selected, such as Lost in Translation (2003), it will almost invariably lose to some poorly crafted by star-laden work like Crash (2003). After all, the Oscars amounted to a popularity contest decided by it's largest voting demographic: actors. While I appreciate good acting, I also know that no matter how good an actor is, a film can be ruined by poor directing. Meanwhile, a good director can take a bad actor and produce a good film. As an example of the latter, see Punch-Drunk Love (2002).

But enough ranting about my qualms with the Academy Awards. There is one category that I do pay particular attention to: Best Foreign Language Film. Not because these films are necessarily the greatest foreign films of the year, but because it gives insight into the global market of transnational cinema. Countries that receive nominations and in particular awards will see an increase in global audiences, and many directors can gain international notoriety from it. So for the sake of getting to the point, I will spare you my diatribe on the absurdity of allocating all foreign films to a single award despite the fact that, for instance, India out surpasses the US in film production. The point is that, some 11 months after last year's ceremonies, I have finally gotten around to watching the most recent winner for Best Foreign Language Film—Yōjirō Takita's Departures (2009).

The film revolves around Daigo, a cello player who loses his job and ends up working at, essentially, a Japanese funeral home. Their job is to perform the ceremony of preparing the body for cremation. The film is, perhaps, unusual for an Oscar winner. This is not because of any sort of unusual narrative techniques or other such things I would like to see more of in films selected by the Academy, but rather because of the more culturally specific nature of the plot. While Americans may be a bit queasy about dead bodies, and certainly show a pronounced fear of dying, the dead body taboo just doesn't compare with Japan. Granted, this becomes obvious to Americans watching Departures, but many may still find themselves wondering why it was such a big deal to everyone that Daigo performs these ceremonies. In actuality, anyone who deals directly with dead bodies are still seen as "unclean" in Japanese society and such professions are considered lowest of the low. To a Japanese person, it's not surprising that Daigo attempts to hide his new career choice even from his own wife.

With this is mind, Departures certainly promotes more understanding an acceptance of those with such professions, who are paradoxically seen as unclean and yet also preside over one of Japan's most sacred, heart-felt ceremony. The ceremony in question is featured prominently in the film and is dealt with wonderfully. Much of it attempts to, perhaps somewhat melodramatically, place the audience into the position of those who attend such ceremonies after losing their loved ones. In seeing the ceremony and its power to help people heal after a loss, it supports the profession as important and noble.

That said, I do feel there is a global appeal in the film's general themes of death, life, and relationships. While the particularities of Japanese society certainly add depth and flavor to the film, those completely unfamiliar with its customs will still respond to the universal themes contained. Of course, death is dealt in and of itself, but it is also used metaphorically. As the title Departures implies, this is not a film specifically about departing from life, but about all of life's changes and our difficulties in coping.

All in all, I feel the film may be a little too culturally specific for everyone's tastes, but in general does a good job of explaining the "unique" aspects of the Japanese culture while also dealing with universal themes. Those open to foreign films that may, at times, be a little culturally jarring will most likely enjoy it. It was quite beautiful and uplifting, if perhaps a bit too melodramatic and sentimental.

I tend to prefer a more realistic approach, but for the most part, I enjoyed it. The music felt right most of the time, though in some parts I felt it was too illustrative of what the audience should be feeling, rather than simply allowing the silence and the weight of the images carry the emotions. However, when it was diegetic (i.e. when the music occurred because Daigo was playing the cello), I felt it was most effective. The characters responded to it and it gave it more power and emotion. These instances of music were made emotional because of the story, rather than being included in an attempt to make the story more emotional. But this will often be a complaint of mine, as I generally dislike overly illustrative movie soundtracks.

Here's hoping this year's winner will be as enjoyable.

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