Saturday, August 29, 2009

Departures (2008)

A recent winner at the 2008 Academy Awards for Best Foreign Film, the latest feature by Yôjirô Takita—about a concert cellist (Masahiro Motoki) who gives up his music career to become a nokanshi (a type of Japanese corpse beautifier)—has been faulted by a number of critics for its blatant accessibility and excessive sentimentality. Such traits, which Yôjirô’s film certainly possesses in spades, undoubtedly earned the film its Oscar, but they don’t provide it much credential from Oscar-wary critics like Japanese scholar Tony Rayns, who in his review at Film Comment attributes the film’s success at the Academy Awards to the members’ “feeling their mortality” and dubs the film “a paean to the good-looking corpse.” Although Rayns’s comments are certainly meant to be derogatory, they at least identify a key component to understanding Yôjirô’s film that has been missed by most critics: namely, the implicit relation between the film’s sentimental mechanics and the film’s own subject matter of what is essentially “sentimentalizing” the dead bodies of loved ones.

One of the reasons why A.I. Artificial Intelligence remains my favorite (and, in a self-reflexive sense, I think the most moving) film by Steven Spielberg is that its theme of “artificial love,” as manifested in the character of the child-robot David (played by Haley Joel Osment), repeatedly calls into question the manufactured emotions that Spielberg himself often attempts to induce from audiences in such manipulative heart-tuggers like Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, and even A.I. itself via its controversial ending. In a similar sense Yôjirô’s film, although no less sentimental than any of Spielberg’s historical pageants, constantly draws attention to its manipulative techniques by repeatedly depicting the painstaking efforts of its protagonist to beautify corpses. The watchful family members at each funeral visitation thus become surrogates for the film viewers themselves, with Yôjirô’s film only working insofar as its audience members, like the mourners depicted in the film, are willing to surrender their disbelief to the illusory spectacle before them. When at one point Masahiro fails to apply the proper makeup to a dead teenage girl, thereby breaking the spell of momentary aliveness that the ritual is supposed to create, it throws the girl’s family members into an uproar—one can’t help but wonder if Yojiro is anticipating the negative reactions by critics who don’t recognize the qualities they wish to see in his staged exhibition.

Much of the film’s emotional manipulation can be attributed to the heartfelt score by Joe Hisaishi, a composer perhaps better known for his enchanting work in the films of Hiyao Miyazaki (Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle) and Takeshi “Beat” Kitano (Kikujiro, Fireworks). Yet even Hisaishi’s score, while undeniably serving to complement its protagonist’s feelings during a few choice montages, retains a certain diegetic quality in its connection to the protagonist’s occasional playing of his cello. Like the onscreen introduction of the film score’s orchestra in Richard Linklater's Waking Life, we are always aware in Departures that the music we hear, however manipulative and sentimental, is ultimately manufactured. To complement Hisaishi’s sentimental score, Yojiro utilizes a number of simple poetic devices in his film’s imagery, most of them involving animals—an octopus floating at the surface of a river, two salmon swimming against the stream, and a flight of birds which serve as a visual rhyme to the flames of a cremator. These scenes, similar to Hisaishi’s music, come across as obvious (yet no less moving) sentimental gestures, explicitly placed in the film to manipulate one’s emotions; they make up, in effect, the “makeup” of Yôjirô’s ceremonial film, decorating its otherwise inconsequential misé en scene so that we, the viewers, may better recognize the universal human emotions lying underneath the effects.

What’s finally poignant about Yôjirô’s sentimental techniques is that they make accessible a subject matter—the profession of corpse beautifiers—that remains a taboo topic in Japan, if not also an uncomfortable topic everywhere else. (We in the U.S. are “grown up” enough to treat funerals with offhand, cynical laughter, as perhaps most aptly demonstrated in Alan Ball’s dreary but descriptive Six Feet Under, but this only serves to expose our underlying fears of death.) In other words, by treating the ceremony of death with an accessible type of cinematic formalism (the mix of sweeping melodies and straightforward imagery that indeed earns Oscars), Yôjirô positions his film as a statement of true cultural protest—a plea to receive death with the same kind of universal acknowledgment that movies typically bestow upon other, more "comforting" phases of life, such as birth, coming-of-age, and marriage.

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