Exclusive: The Director and Star of Departures

Films from Japan have rarely gotten the attention they deserve in the United States, even blockbuster horror films like the original “Grudge” and “Ring” movies, which were barely able to find an audience in theaters here before Hollywood got their hands on them. That is why it was quite exciting when Yojiro Takita’s Departures surprised many by winning the Foreign Language Oscar earlier this year, showing that despite the vast cultural differences, Hollywood was finally starting to pay attention and understand that there was a lot of quality filmmaking coming out of the Land of the Rising Sun.

Departures stars former pop singer Masahiro Motoki as Tokyo concert cellist Daigo Kobayashi, who returns home to his small village after his orchestra disbands. There, he answers a mysterious help wanted ad, which he soon learns is for an assistant at an establishment specializing in “encoffination”—the ceremonial preparation of bodies for cremation. Daigo is creeped out by the prospect at first, but the money is way too good to turn down, and he soon learns that he has a definite knack for it. Knowing that his pretty young wife Mika would never understand or approve, Daigo keeps it a secret, but soon finds himself having to come to terms with other secrets from his past he thought he’d escaped by moving to Tokyo.

It’s a wonderful film, possibly even one of the best of the year, implementing the strength of storytelling found in the best Western films with a story that could only really be told in a Japanese setting, enhanced by Takita’s beautiful use of the Japanese countryside and the changing seasons over the course of the film.

ComingSoon.net sat down with Mr. Takita and the star of his movie, Masahiro Motoki, to talk about the themes in the film and how they might be viewed differently in the United States than in their native country.

ComingSoon.net: Mr. Motoki, I understand you were the one who initially came up with the idea to make this movie, so can you talk about where that came from?
Masahiro Motoki: Seventeen years ago, I was traveling in India, and I saw a cremation on the river bank of the Ganges. It was a very beautiful, moving moment. At the same time, almost by coincidence, I read the diary of an encoffiner – someone had written a diary of what his work consisted of. In modern life, we tend to shy away from looking at death. We really shield ourselves from death, and it’s very rare to see life and death coexisting in the same moment, in the same time, but in the work of the encoffiner, we see–as I saw for myself–that it is possible to, by squarely acknowledging death, more deeply affirm life, and that’s why I thought this film would be a good idea.

CS: Mr. Takita, how did you become involved with this?
Yojiro Takita: A producer took Mr. Motoki’s idea and had it developed into a screenplay. I wasn’t involved in the development of that screenplay but when I read that screenplay, even though I had never seen the work of an encoffiner, I was very drawn to the warmth, the gentleness and the mystical-ness of this world, and I was immediately captivated by that.

CS: I assume that in Japan, this is not something that’s very common? The way people around Daigo react to him doing this job is curious, they almost look down on the job as if it’s something very foreign.
Takita: Yes, in Japan, it was an old custom that had lingered in some provincial areas, but for most Japanese people, this film was a complete rediscovery. They were not aware it existed, the custom or the profession.

CS: What about the reaction of the people in the village to what Daiko does? Is that just because they’re not aware of the profession and are wary of those who do it?
Motoki: Inevitably, even though death does come to us all, I think there’s still something inherently scary and anxiety-inducing about being quite intimate and hands-on with a corpse. I think definitely it feels like a combination of both fearful and somehow almost dangerous, so I think that it’s just not considered a very appealing job.
Takita: I would like to say that in the Japanese world concept, death is considered impure, it’s considered tainted, so the people who have to deal with death, who are stuck in that position, are also considered somehow less than pure, so there is a deep prejudice both against death and those who deal with death in Japan that’s unspoken. I’m just expressing in the movie through those characters that deep-seated prejudice towards death and those who deal with it – undertakers, etc. I guess the question is: do you think there’s a similar kind of impurity or taintedness associated with those people in the funeral business in the United States or is it slightly different?

CS: Probably not. I think if you tell someone you’re an undertaker, they might act a little weird towards you, but like anything else, it’s a necessary profession. It’s just a job that needs to be done, and it’s not something we shun in society. When the film opens, there’s a scene of the encoffinment ceremony that’s almost sacred, but it leads to an unexpected laugh. When you bring humor into this profession, it creates a strange dichotomy. Can you talk about bringing humor into the movie and keeping it light despite the serious moments?
Motoki: As the film was being developed, the producer really felt that the only way for this weighty-themed film to find a contemporary audience, they really needed a director like Mr. Takita, who is able to lightly lift up the veil of sadness and find the humor lurking behind it. That was really a critical component, so he was really selected for his distinct sense of humor.

CS: But also keeping it tasteful and keeping that balance, because when you hear what this movie is about, you’d assume it was a straight drama, and any humor or laughs are surprising, making the movie more approachable.
Takita: I think that whether the theme is death or not, I think the sight of a human being earnestly engaged in something is ultimately comical, that’s my perspective. (There is an amusing moment here as Mr. Takita continues his next response and the translator tries to explain the term “drag queen” to him.) That opening scene is in my mind, there’s a fairly complex something going on, which is that there’s sort of the surprise and the humor in finding out the true gender of someone who is maybe not a drag queen or transgender–you can supply the politically-correct language–but it’s also about the sadness of someone who lived in that very isolated community who wound up choosing to end his or her life, because of an inability to live out their life in a freer way. So there’s the humor but also the sadness of someone being forced to take their own life because of the socially-subscribed role models prepared for him or her.

CS: That’s especially clear when you return to that scene later in the movie. I also wanted to ask about the decision to use live actors playing the corpses as they’re prepared. Most of the time, they’d just use realistic dummies, so can you talk about how that worked out?
Takita: I actually wanted to use corpses, but there were some moral constrictions. (His entire entourage laughs at this.) Actually, it’s a mix between dolls or dummies and human living actors, there’s a blend of both.

CS: I know you have a music background–I don’t know if you knew how to play the cello–but I wanted to talk about the musical element in the movie and how that plays into the story, as well as talking about learning how to play cello.
Motoki: I think because the story is about a cellist who loses his job and becomes an encoffiner, originally the cello was modeled on the human body, and my character goes from embracing the human body in the form of a cello to embracing the physical human body in the form of corpses. So in that sense, it’s a very natural transition, and you can almost say it’s a God-given profession for him, that it was very natural. Also, the tone of the cello amongst string instruments resembles the human voice most closely, so it’s both evocative and very responsive to human emotion, and the human body is very tuned to respond to the sound of the cello, and both the director and the composer were very aware of this as they molded the music into the film.

CS: Did you play any cello before making this?
Motoki: No, this was my first time. It’s very challenging.

CS: The Oscar win was pretty amazing, because your movie was thought of as the underdog. I wondered if there’s been a lot more general interest in Japanese films and if you’ve seen this interest yet?
Takita: Oh, yes, it certainly was a surprise win, so I think there’s a lot of curiosity and interest into what kind of film it is, and in fact, it has resulted in the sale to sixty countries, so it really just goes to show you how impactful winning an Academy Award is.

CS: I was also curious about how the film is being marketed here in the United States. From the poster and the clips, the movie seems to be more about a musician rather than about the encoffining.
Motoki: Well, you can’t really blame them. The cello is a Western instrument, so if it de-exoticizes the film and makes it feel more approachable, and that Japanese don’t sit around making samurai movies.
Takita: But actually, even in Japan, it took them awhile to figure out how to market the film, what the poster should be and what the trailer should be. It doesn’t surprise me that each country will have its approach to try and get people to come to this movie. I’m very curious to see what the response will be.
Motoki: For instance, the Greek poster has a black background with the encoffiner seated very stylistically posed and then with the Greek lettering, it feels very philosophical and it looks very much like an art movie, very artistic, so it’s very fascinating to see the different ways in which each country handles this film within their own cultural milieu.

CS: I’ve seen a lot of Japanese films, but generally, we don’t see a lot of Japanese movies over here. The Oscar win should definitely help this one, but I wondered how you felt about how Japanese films are perceived here and why you think it’s hard to get them shown and seen here in the States.
Takita: Yes, it’s true that there are so many great Japanese films, and I don’t know if it’s a language barrier, I don’t know what the issue is, but I wish somebody would analyze this problem. Why is it so hard for good Japanese films to be shown here?

CS: It might be a cultural thing. I don’t know if you’ve heard of “Six Feet Under,” but it was a very popular show on HBO, which dealt with undertakers, but it had a sense of humor. Here in the United States, dark humor actually has an audience. How are things going the other way in terms of how American films are influencing Japanese filmmaking or film culture? Do you see that a lot as well or are Japanese filmmakers trying to remain isolated from that?
Takita: Yes, over the years, the American cultural legacy in the post-war Japan, certainly movies were part of that, and I certainly have enjoyed my share of American and European films, but we’re also able to have a critical eye towards them, and seeing films like “Waltz with Bashir” or “Slumdog Millionaire,” I think it’s nice to see that people are making movies that only they can make.
Motoki: I think part of the reason why “Departures” is being embraced around the world is its universal themes of death and regeneration, and not to exaggerate or anything, but I think in this economic downturn we’re all experiencing around the world, there is a larger zeitgeist that is going back to more fundamental or core human values, and I think that cinematically as well we’re starting to see that search in other movies as well.

Departures opens in New York, L.A., San Francisco and Chicago on Friday, May 29 with plans to expand in June.

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