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If there was one real surprise at this year's Academy Awards, it was the winner for Best Foreign Language Film. The front-runner was widely thought to be the Israeli movie "Waltz with Bashir," but the Oscar went to "Departures." It's a Japanese film that had not yet opened in the U.S. Well, today, "Departures" opens. Bob Mondello says it's easy to see why the Oscar-voters liked it.
BOB MONDELLO: When a Tokyo orchestra goes bankrupt, its cellist, a young sad sack named Daigo finds himself unable to support a big-city lifestyle. So he and his wife move back to his rural hometown, and he starts a job search. There's no orchestra to work for, but an ad offering a career working with departures. Sounds promising - the travel industry intrigues him. So he arranges an interview and is hired almost before he sits down. At a high salary, too.
There is, however, a catch: The word departures in the ad was a misprint. The job involves working with the departed - the dearly departed - preparing bodies for cremation.
(Soundbite of film, "Departures")
Mr. MASAHIRO MOTOKI (Actor): (As Daigo Kobayashi) (Foreign language spoken)
Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)
MONDELLO: Daigo is about to leave when the boss offers him his first day's salary and suggests he try the job and see. And soon the musician, who's played winningly by Masahiro Motoki, starts to get in touch with his inner undertaker.
The stylized ceremonies, all performed with grieving relatives in attendance, turn out to require nearly as much delicacy as playing a cello did. Daigo discovers the rituals have a real beauty to them, also a habit of not going quite as planned, which can lead to unexpected comedy.
(Soundbite of film, "Departures")
(Soundbite of music)
(Soundbite of laughter)
MONDELLO: What the film doesn't say, but what Japanese audiences would know, is that Daigo's initial reluctance isn't just about what he sees as the job's ick factor. Dealing with dead bodies and dead animals was regarded as unclean in Japan for centuries, and that prejudice dies hard. Those who prepare bodies are still widely discriminated against - and that discrimination can extend to families - so that if, say, your great-grandfather worked in a slaughterhouse, you may have trouble landing a job.
So when the film empathizes with Daigo, as his wife reacts with revulsion, or his neighbors shun him, it's engaging in social criticism - which may be why director Yojiro Takita built so much humor into the story, even though slapstick seems at odds with the material - and why he made the visuals so seductive. The strategy definitely worked for Japanese audiences, who forked over more than $60 million at the box office.
And while this lovely, sentimental film is hardly likely to have success on that scale in the U.S., it will absolutely delight the art-house crowd. Multiplexes will be crowded with noisy summer films, after all, from which "Departures" will represent a sophisticated and elegant departure.
I'm Bob Mondello.
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