If nothing else, Yojiro Takita’s Departures—this past year’s surprise Best Foreign Film Oscar winner—provides an unexpectedly sublime example of the magic astute casting can have in an otherwise problematic film. In this case, when I say casting, I am speaking of the actors’s faces, because what a phenomenal collection of expressive faces they are!
Faces, of course, are just one of the many things that make cinema, well, cinematic. What other medium could bring you the close-up revelations of, say, Renee Maria Falconetti finding some kind of grace in extreme distress in The Passion of Joan of Arc, Jimmy Stewart with that awed look in his eyes as he sees his recreated love unveiled before him in Vertigo, or the look of the believers staring up at the sky at the climax of Close Encounters of the Third Kind? All of these faces evoke something loaded with a kind of unspeakable meaning that can, arguably, only be expressed in images, evoking profound, possibly spiritual feelings of transcendence or anguish.
Departures hardly stands in the same company as those masterpieces, but there’s something about each of its performers that made this viewer, at least, consider the power of a face to hint at meaning. The faces in Departures all suggest stories of their own, beyond the film’s surface narrative of life, death and acceptance.
Consider, for instance, the visage of Tsutomu Yamazaki, the veteran actor (he’s worked with Akira Kurosawa, and is best known for his role in Juzo Itami’s 1986 film Tampopo) playing Sasaki, the funeral director who hires the main character, Daigo, to be his personal assistant in the encoffination business. His face is as wrinkled and worn-down as one might expect from an old man who has dealt with death as long as he has. Yet there remains to his countenance a wisdom and energy that belies the grave voice that issues forth from his mouth; here is a man who has in no way lost the ability to find some kind of deeper meaning in his work, something his assistant is only beginning to grasp. Only when he explains to Daigo how the death of his wife led to his first-ever encoffination does Sasaki’s face suggest the kind of world-weariness that one might expect from his age.
Masahiro Motoki, who plays Daigo—a former cellist who finds himself forced to take on the encoffination job after he’s laid off from a symphony-orchestra gig—and Ryoko Hirosue, who plays his wife Mika, are considerably fresher faces, as befits the arc of Kundo Koyama’s screenplay through which they both grow out of their youthful naïveté. Hirosue has a face that exudes a perky quality, yet also has a porcelain-like fragility that seems like it might crack at any moment. Motoki, meanwhile, carries a subtler brand of youthfulness in his rock-solid features, with a round, wide-open mug that suggests not only age and experience, but also openness to new experiences. (Motoki’s face reminds me of Hong Kong actor Tony Leung Chiu-wai, and with about the same amount of sex appeal.)
Straddling the divide between wisdom and inexperience is Yuriko, Sasaki’s office assistant and the one with perhaps the most intriguing and mysterious features of all. Not even Yamazaki’s elderly face suggests the world-weariness that actress Kimiko Yo’s does, its comparably craggy complexion standing in stark contrast to Hirosue’s cleaner, more innocent one. Clearly, she has spent a long time grappling with tough stuff, and she may well still have some demons left inside her. (So it proves for her character, in a shoved-in third-act revelation that provides one of the film’s more annoyingly mushy moments—a bit more on those later.)
There’s many more of these kinds of fitting faces among the cast: I was especially struck by the Frankenstein-like visage of Tetta Sugimoto, who plays a childhood friend of Daigo’s who initially reacts with revulsion when he discovers his friend’s newfound vocation. But the point of all this is to suggest that, in focusing on getting and capturing the right kinds of faces for each of his characters, director Takita goes a considerable way toward making his fairly predictable story seem more visually and emotionally immediate than it perhaps has any right to be.
None of this would resonate if the actors behind the faces didn’t make their surface characteristics mean something in the context of the story and its characters. What truly amazes, in that regard, is just how lived-in these performances feel. Hirosue, as Mika, pulls off some vibrant split-second reactions early on that imply a woman torn between honoring her commitment to her husband while suppressing her own deep ambivalence. All in all, though, this is Motoki’s picture, and he has the range as well as the face to suggest a whole lifetime’s worth of maturity gained in a short time as he digs deeper into a field he never thought he’d find himself involved in, much less becoming passionate about. It becomes a minor pleasure in and of itself, from the film’s opening scene onward, to see him engage in the ceremonial encoffination; his methodical hand movements fully bring to life the “precision and gentle affection” he, through voiceover narration, says he saw in his mentor as he carried out the process.
The best one can say about the movie itself is that it’s an earnest and sincere attempt at a thought-provoking tearjerker. Departures undoubtedly has its heart in the right place; it manages to mine a considerable amount of humor and warmth out of ostensibly depressing subject matter. But as the film gradually tries to push toward transcendence, it mostly exposes Takita’s and Koyama’s cloying sentimentality, with the cello-heavy Joe Hisaishi score the worst offender. For all its manipulation, however, Departures is ultimately more blandly comfortable than deeply unsettling. Even its most ambitiously considered images—a flock of geese flying in the air, a dead salmon lying as water rushes past it—feel more shopworn than inspired (Steve McQueen already used the visual flock-of-birds analogy during Hunger’s third-act stations-of-the-cross this year, and the image, truth be told, felt rather clichéd there, too).
The insistence on following a predictable three-act structure represents Departures’s most glaring shortcoming, mostly because it is so predictable. I could sense many of the film’s dramatic revelations a mile away. (Daigo’s resentment toward his father, who skipped out on the family when he was young, might have been more poignant if its resolution—in which he is forced to reconcile with his father after death—didn’t feel so preordained from the start.) For a story that purports to be about life and death in all its universal messiness, Departures’s too often feels carefully structured—rigged—to convince.
Departures is still just about potent enough to leave us with lingering questions. With the awareness of death hovering over us all, how are we to deal with it? Push it aside? Face it head-on? How do we live our lives knowing that we are all going to have to die sooner or later? And, of course, what may lie beyond this earthly life?
If this film is at all subtle about anything, then it’s this idea that, even when death comes for all of us, our faces remain. Likewise, even after Departures dissolves from the memory, the faces of these characters and these actors remain. Maybe Takita did manage to touch upon something fleetingly transcendent, whether he knew it or not.
House contributor Kenji Fujishima is a Rutgers University journalism graduate who is currently earning his keep at The Wall Street Journal’s Global News Desk in New York while messing around on the side. He maintains—poorly—a blog named My Life, at 24 Frames Per Second. Feel free to check it out.