by Chris MaGee
It was a very, very big night for Japan in Hollywood last night. The box office and critical juggernaut that is Yojiro Takita's "Departures (Okuribito)" took home the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in a surprise win against odds on favorites "Waltz with Bashir" from Israel and the Palm d'Or winning "The Class" from France.
As we'd previously reported director Takita and "Departures" stars Masahiro Motoki, Ryoko Hirosue and Kimiko Yo were in the audience at the Kodak Theatre to pick up the award. Takita repeatedly thanked the crowd that included such Hollywood luminaries as Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Sean Penn and Kate Winslet as Motoki, Hirosue and Yo stood somewhat in shock behind him.
Their shock made perfect sense. Few were predicting (including myself) that the story of an unemployed cellist who returns to his home town to take a job in a funeral home would beat the very stiff competition, and would ultimately make Japanese cinema as well as Oscar history as being the film to break the 54 year drought for Japan in the Best Foreign Language Film category. The last film to be awarded this honour was Hiroshi Inagaki's 1954 film "Samurai 1: The Legend of Musahi Miyamoto" starring Toshirô Mifune.
It wasn't just "Departures" that went home with one of the highly coveted statuettes though. Kunio Katō won in the Best Animated Short Film category with his 12-minute film "Le Maison en Petits Cubes (Tsumiki no ie)". Not such a surprise in this case as "Cubes" already won top prize at last year's Annecy International Animated Film Festival considered by many to be the Cannes of animation. Katō also treated the crowd to one of the more entertaining acceptance speeches of the night by ending his lengthy list of thank yous with a sincere "Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto."
In amongst such a fantastic night for Japanese cinema at the 81st Annual Academy Awards there was quite a major flub that took place, although the producers of the show failed to catch it. During the usual roll call of actors and industry bright lights who had passed away during the year veteran actor Rentaro Mikuni was shown in place of the late director Kon Ichikawa. I guess whoever cut the piece together should have been paying closer attention to the extras on their DVD copy of "The Burmese Harp".
It was a long night and I could go on about how while I wasn't surprised that Mickey Rourke lost to Sean Penn I was upset, but this is a Japanese film blog, so. One thing I did want to mention in closing though was that along with Japan representing East Asia on stage it was great to finally see so many talented people from South East Asia receiving awards and recognition as well. Danny Boyle's "Slumdog Millionaire" of course took home top prize of the night, but as producer Christian Colson said during his acceptance speech the film was a collaborative effort and highlighted the vibrant people and talent of Mumbai. So I just wanted to extend a sincere congratulations not only to Takita-san and Katō-san for their wins, but also to Asian cinema and culture at large for last night's successes. Also, thanks to Japan Today for the above pic.