Here are some of the delicious home-style dishes that nourish him along the way, and that epitomise washoku, or traditional Japanese cooking. Pay close attention to the mesmerising opening shot of Yôjirô Takita’s Departures (frankly, it’s impossible not to). A static camera, positioned by the side of the road in the midst of a snowy white-out, captures the headlights of an approaching car emerging from the bleakness that envelops it. Takita’s opening shot states the essential theme of his understated masterpiece: the emergence of a strong, guiding light from a murky, directionless void.
This precise and perfect usage of film language goes a long way towards explaining why such a sweet, but perhaps outwardly simple film rode a wave of critical fervour all the way to the Oscar podium, where it won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 2009.
Takita’s protagonist, failed cellist Daigo (a wonderful Masahiro Motoki), is stumbling along a path of wish fulfilment when impending financial ruin forces him to return to his childhood home. Reluctantly, he accepts a high-paying apprenticeship as a nokanshi, a practitioner of the traditional ceremony of 'encoffinment’ (the elegant preparation of the deceased for cremation). It’s an age-old profession, but one that carries with it both immense respect and a certain social stigma (his young wife Mika, played by Ryôko Hirosue, is initially repulsed by his daily duties of dressing the dead).
As the title suggests, the multi-tiered Departures charts a profound journey. As those who have passed away leave their mortal lives behind, so too does Daigo shed painful memories of a childhood in a broken home. The personalities of his new workmates – his boss and mentor, Ikuei (Tsutomu Yamazaki), and company secretary, Yuriko (Kimiko Yo) – intrinsically affect Daigo’s transition from flighty failed musician to a man of wisdom who is capable of forgiveness.
The surface beauty of Departures is striking from that very first frame; filmed in Sakata on the west coast of Japan and its surrounds, it is a film of both expansive landscapes and intimate indoors. But the true majesty of Yôjirô Takita’s achingly moving film is in its soulful uncovering of universal human truths. Many films aim to enlighten their audiences as to the empowering nature of compassion, respect and empathy; few have attained it so warmly and entirely as Departures.