LOS ANGELES (Reuters Life!) - "Departures," the Japanese winner of the 2008 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, deals with job loss and death -- albeit in a sly and humorous fashion.
Directed by Yojiro Takita, it tells the story of Daigo (Masahiro Motoki), a young cellist who suddenly loses his job when his symphony orchestra in Tokyo is disbanded.
So, Motoki moves back to his small home town with wife Mika (Ryoko Hirosue) and applies for a local job in tourism, only to find the company specializes in encoffinments, the ancient Japanese art of preparing a corpse for cremation.
Takita talked to Reuters about making the film, which opens in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago on Friday, followed by a national rollout.
Q: What sort of film did you set out to make?
A: "When you deal with death as a theme it can be a very delicate matter, and it's true I was very intrigued by the story of an encoffiner, especially as at my age the specter of death begins to creep up on you. So the biggest challenge was deciding how to tell this tricky story. What really helped was visiting a professional encoffiner and watching them do their tasks. Seeing that, you begin to see something in yourself, and that was the turning point in how I'd shape this film."
Q: Death is increasingly sanitized in the West. Is it the same in Japan?
A: "Even more so. For a long time in Japan, death was looked at as something filthy, and people with occupations associated with death have had to fight prejudice. Even when you have rituals and ceremonies celebrating someone's death, more often than not the body isn't seen as usually people prefer to turn away from the reality of it."
Q: How difficult was it finding the right actors?
A: "Casting is obviously crucial in any film, and you start off with a wish list and then come up against the reality of availability and so on. But I was lucky in that the idea for the film came from Masahiro Motoki who plays Daigo, and Ryoko Hirosue who plays his wife was in another of my films. And even though there's a certain age gap between them, I was convinced she'd be great in the role as they embark on a new journey. I was lucky to actually get everyone who was on my wish list."
Q: Is it difficult casting corpses?
A: "Very. When you use live people you can't help but see their eyes quiver and other parts of their bodies move to some extent. We auditioned hundreds of people and eventually found some who could lie as still as possible. It's amazingly difficult to do that. And some of the characters we see alive first, and then they're corpses later, and for them we just couldn't find body doubles. So we had to use digital effects and transplant a very still section from one body to another, to make them realistic corpses. In most films, corpses aren't a big deal, but they were uncommonly important in this."
Q: There's a lot of sly humor. How important was that in setting the film's tone?
A: "Usually with films that deal with death, there is a lot of crying and sadness. That's the typical approach and it's not easy to watch. So I knew that, as we had a lot of funeral scenes, I didn't want to depict it as any sadder than it had to be. My perspective on people is that we all have two sides -- the serious and humorous -- and I like to depict the surface but also show something of the inside. When you simply observe people doing something very serious, like encoffinment, the comedy and humor just comes out naturally."
Q: Did it make you more aware of your own mortality?
A: "Absolutely. Death used to be a very distant thing for me, but making this film and the fact that now I'm 54 made me realize that death's ahead for all of us and the message of "Departures" is really to live life to the fullest."
Editing by Bob Tourtellotte and Patricia Reaney