Out-of-work classical musician Daigo Kobayashi (Masahiro Motoki, left) learns the art of preparing dead bodies from Mr. Sasaki (Tsutomu Yamazaki) in the Oscar-winning Japanese film Departures. ((Regency Films))

I entered the screening for Departures in a fighting mood. This is the Japanese movie that beat out Ari Folman’s stunning animated war documentary Waltz with Bashir for the 2009 foreign-language Oscar — not to mention Laurent Cantet’s nervy high-school chronicle The Class. At the very least, Departures had better be as outstanding as those two films.

Departures explores the Buddhist "casketing" ritual for preparing a dead body prior to cremation.

It isn’t. Directed by veteran Yojiro Takita, this is an elegant but highly sentimental story about finding meaning in life while dealing with death. It’s also resolutely old-fashioned. Whereas Folman and Cantet took exciting new approaches to their subject matter, Takita embraces the traditional. His film revels in Japanese cultural clichés, with lyrical shots of flying swans, swimming salmon and cherry trees in blossom.

The tradition at the heart of Departures is the Buddhist "casketing" ritual for preparing a dead body prior to cremation. It's an unpleasant – and unpopular – job, but someone has to do it. Here, it falls to Daigo (Masahiro Motoki), an out-of-work classical musician in need of a new vocation.

Daigo is a cellist with a failing Tokyo symphony, until the orchestra folds – leading him to question his lukewarm career. He sells his cello and, accompanied by young wife Mika (a kittenish Ryoko Hirosue), moves back to his northern hometown of Sakata, taking over the house his late mother left him.

When he answers an enigmatic want ad for what sounds like a job in tourism, Daigo finds himself in an office full of coffins. The "departures" referred to in the ad have nothing to do with travel. He’s stumbled upon a nokanfu – an agent subcontracted by undertakers to perform the elaborate casketing procedure. "It’s a niche market," explains Yuriko (Kimiko Yo), the no-nonsense office manager. The elderly agent, Mr. Sasaki (the priceless Tsutomu Yamazaki), is looking for an assistant and hires Daigo on the spot.


Daigo plays the cello in a scene from Departures. ((Regency Films))

A squeamish Daigo is thrust into the job without training, learning as he goes from the laconic Sasaki. His first assignment is to play a corpse for an instructional video. His next is to help prep the putrid remains of an old woman who has been dead for weeks. At first, director Takita and his scenarist, Kundo Koyama, seem to be promising us a black comedy in the mould of Juzo Itami’s classic Funeral (which also starred Yamazaki), or a Japanese version of Six Feet Under.

Before long, though, graveyard humour gives way to a more serious look at life choices. Daigo discovers that being a nokanfu makes him a social pariah and Mika, horrified, leaves him. Yet Daigo can’t bring himself to quit. He begins to see the importance in helping the bereaved say a dignified farewell to their loved ones. Sasaki, meanwhile, becomes a kind of father figure to the young man, whose real dad abandoned him when he was a small child.

Sasaki, in his taciturn way, shows Daigo how to savour life. The old man balances his morbid profession by filling his apartment with flourishing plants and relishing his own exotic cooking. The film continually uses eating as a twin symbol of life and death, with Daigo and Sasaki bonding as they devour grilled puffer roe and crunch fried chicken.

Bathing also becomes a leitmotif, as Daigo the corpse-washer ends up spending tranquil after-hours soaking at a public bath he remembers fondly from his childhood. The bath’s owner, Tsuyako (Kazuko Yoshiyuki), is the widowed mother of one of Daigo’s boyhood friends, who is at loggerheads with her son. He wants Tsuyako to sell the small business so it can be razed and replaced with condos.

Here and elsewhere, Takita appears to be going for the quiet poignancy of the great Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu (Tokyo Story), whose films often dealt with such generational clashes. But in Ozu’s subtle films, the emotion slowly rises to the surface. Takita can’t resist letting it gush forth. As Daigo wrestles with death and abandonment issues, the plot gets more and more soppy. Before you know it, we have swelling strings on the soundtrack, beautiful tears, even – OMG – a slow-motion shot. What at first seemed an intelligent film has turned into a glossy tear-jerker.


Daigo (Masahiro Motoki, left) relaxes in a public bath in the film Departures. ((Regency Films))

Departures was inspired by Coffinman, poet Shinmon Aoki’s memoir of his experiences as a Buddhist mortician, and it’s most fascinating when showing us the tricks of that trade. Performing the casketing before an audience of mourners, the nokanfu turns the creepy task of preparing a corpse into a graceful art form. The body is washed, dressed and made up with the same formal precision that goes into flower arranging and the tea ritual. However, Takita doesn’t know when enough is enough. He shows us the routine so many times that, by the end, I felt I could do it myself.

At 130 minutes, the film is also too long – and the longer it gets, the weaker and cornier it becomes. Not just the story, but the style, too. Takita and his cinematographer, Takeshi Hamada, begin by painting a modest, affectionate picture of Sakata and the changing seasons; by the end, they’ve become self-consciously arty, with sweeping vista shots of Daigo sawing on his cello in the middle of a field. (It’s an image that cries out "poster shot" and, yes, it’s on the movie’s poster.)

The lead actors, however, are a pleasure. Daigo is played with brio by the soulful-eyed Motoki, a Japanese John Cusack with the most expressive brows this side of Colin Farrell. Yamazaki, famous for his Clint Eastwood parody in Itami’s hilarious "noodle western" Tampopo (1987), is once again amusingly deadpan as Sasaki. His impassive face betrays nothing, while the curl of his thin lips just hints at a slight distaste for his grim work. Only his own cooking can crack his stony façade: "This is so good, I hate myself," he declares, biting into yet another delectable morsel.

You wish the same could be said for the film itself. Instead, as foreign-Oscar-winners go, Departures is safe, bland comfort food. Folman and Cantet, you were robbed.

In Japanese, with English subtitles.

Departures (Okuribito) opens in Toronto and Vancouver on June 12.

Martin Morrow writes about the arts for