13 March 2010 | EUyeshima
Lyrical Film About Finding Passion in an Unlikely Profession
Without irony, there is a funereal grace to this 2009 dramedy, so much so that one can sometimes hear the distinct echoes of film master Yasujiro Ozu ("Tokyo Story") in director Yojiro Takita's subtle yet stately look at the business of preparing deceased bodies for their caskets. Ozu's influence can be felt most in the quietude of tone that reveals the inevitability of death with both grim humor and spiritual awakening. The film's lyricism rests on the mournful cello accompaniment of the protagonist, Daigo Kobayashi, a young cellist who finds himself jobless after his Tokyo-based orchestra is disbanded. Out of economic necessity, he and his sunny, supportive wife Mika move back to his late mother's house up north in Yamagata.
As outlined in Kundo Koyama's somewhat methodical screenplay, the story focuses on the challenge Daigo faces in finding one's place in life, no matter how dubious it may seem to others. Daigo, bereft of his passion, answers a job ad involving "departures", which leads him to believe the company is a travel agency. However, he quickly realizes the two-person operation is actually about preparing bodies for burial, ritually cleansing and cloaking them while the mourners watch. Initially aghast, he is convinced by the taciturn owner Mr. Sasaki that he is ideal for the role of assistant and offers him the job. He has to fight his own prejudices as well as others about the supposed unseemliness of his profession, including Mika, who finds out her husband's new profession and pronounces him unclean. Daigo, however, realizes he has found his passion in the pre-burial ceremony, and Sasaki teaches him the ropes in a way that recalls Juzo Itami's beloved 1985 comedy, "Tampopo".
Former boy-band singer Masahiro Motoki is genuinely affecting as Daigo, while Ryoko Hirosue brings a surprising layer of complexity to the perennially sunny Mika. The deadpan Tsutomu Yamazaki makes Sasaki the film's key gravitational element with a minimum of effort, while Kimiko Yo shows an offbeat quality as his office manager Yuriko. The cinematography by Takeshi Hamada is top-notch with some memorable images offered along the way (like Daigo playing his cello on a hilltop), and Joe Hisaishi's ("Kikujiro") music score allows dramatic sweep without getting too epic. On the downside, the film runs too long at 130 minutes, and there are moments when the comedy is played too broadly and the sentiment laid on too thick. Still, the movie shows Japanese cinema still exudes a unique identity, and there is global vitality still in that country's film industry. A brief interview with Takita is the major bonus on the 2010 DVD.