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It was the great surprise in this past year’s Oscars, a movie that the smart money never saw coming.


Best foreign language film? Had to be “Waltz with Bashir,” right?


Wrong. The wry, compassionate and elegiac Japanese comedy-drama “Departures” took home the prize. Director Yojiro Takita admits he was “as surprised as everyone else,” but “excited and delighted.”


“Departures,” which The New York Times promptly labeled “the film that cost you your Oscars pool,” is surprising in other ways. A movie set against a great cultural taboo in Japan — cleaning and preparing dead bodies (while in view of their families) for cremation — it was a movie its director maintains almost didn’t get made.


“It was very difficult to cast and finance,” Takita, 53, says through an interpreter. “Death is seen as something filthy in Japan, a dirty subject people tend to turn their eyes away from or pretend that they’re not turning their eyes away from it. Plainly is not an easy subject for us.”


In the film, a newly-laid off cellist (Masahiro Motoki) returns with his wife to his hometown. The only job he can find is discretely advertised as working with “departures.” And the boss (Tsutomu Yamazaki of the Japanese classics “Tampopo” and “A Taxing Woman”) isn’t hiring a travel agent.


“Before encoffinment arose as an occupation, either family members or those who are close to the family from the community would perform those rituals,” Takita says. It’s not a “popular profession,” he hastens to add. Few people practice the trade.


“But it is important to be able to celebrate the life of the person who has passed, and for the people left behind to be able to reassess their lives and figure out how they will live from this point on,” Takita says, which is what appealed to him about Kundo Kayama’s script. The director also liked the parallel between playing the cello and carefully preparing a body. Might an artist (like a musician) be temperamentally better at this sort of work?


“What’s more important is the sensitivity you bring to the action,” Takita says. “It’s about how much the encoffiner thinks about the person who is deceased, about the bereaved and what the encoffiner can do that would allow the bereaved to celebrate that person’s life. The way we captured it in the film makes the process look more artistic than it usually is.


“At the same time, ironically, there is something similar between the process of encoffinment and the act of playing the cello. When you play the cello, the instrument has a human, curvaceous form. The cellist embraces that form when playing the instrument, very loving, affectionate. That’s very similar, physically, to the actions of the encoffiner, cradling the body, being tender and gentle with it.”


“Departures’” sensitive (and sometimes humorous) approach to its subject owes something to its director, who got his start in “pink” films (soft-core porn) in the 1980s, and Yamazaki, whose edgy, unflappable presence has graced films for 30 years. When it came out in Japan, the movie might have made a difference, its director believes.


“I think the attitude toward the occupation is changing,” Takita says. “More young people, I hear, have expressed interest in encoffinment as a profession since the movie came out in Japan last year. I also get the sense that more and perhaps we in Japan are facing the end of life as a chance for inspiration and celebration, and not something that the grieving see as unclean.”

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