by Chris MaGee
It seems strange to have a film about an out of work cellist taking a job as an encoffiner, someone whose specific role is to lay the deceased in their coffin, standing along side genre hits like "District 9" and "Zombieland", but "Departures" definitely held its own with these other 2009 sleeper hits. Of course it helped that the heartwarming drama, which had already scooped up armfuls of awards at home in Japan, took home the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film at the 81st annual Academy Awards. The win was a surprise to many who had thought that Israel's entry "Waltz with Bashir" would waltz away with the coveted statuette, but "Departure's" worldwide popularity and historic Oscar win seemed natural to its director Yojiro Takita, "I've seen that all over the world people [who've watched "Departures"] react at the same time, and that's a very interesting point," the veteran filmmaker stated during a recent visit to Toronto to present his blockbuster international hit, "This film is dealing with very universal issues and very basic feelings of human beings, and it drew these feelings very accurately and that's why it's been such a big success around the world."
With its gentle humour and heartfelt, unpretentious performances of its lead stars Masahiro Motoki, Ryoko Hirosue, and Tsutomu Yamazaki "Departures" definitely brought a very pragmatic, and dare it be said, Japanese approach to death, but speaking to Takita face to face it's easy to see where some of the film's pragmatism came from. Discussion about his involvement in the final polish of Kundo Koyama's screenplay adaptation of real life encoffiner Aoki Shinmon's autobiography and the behind-the-scenes creation of his extensive filmography is summed up in a refreshingly matter of fact way, "It depends on the budget you have available, and also the themes you want to explore in the film, and that has to match with the creator of the film," he explains indicating himself, "Once that is sort of matching, that's all it takes to get the film going, but the most important thing is the theme - how it appears to me. And through this theme, how I can express myself. "
Seated in the offices of the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre on the second stop of a mini-tour of Ontario that began with a screening of "Departures" at Kitchener-Waterloo's Grand River Film Festival the 53-year-old Takita exudes quiet confidence and authority. Now in his third decade as a filmmaker Takita has applied his talent to everything from magical fantasies like 2005's "Ashura" and the "Onmyoji" films to the multiple Japanese Academy Award-winning historical drama "When the Last Sword is Drawn". "In Japan, I'm dealing with many different types of films, but for me it's a very natural thing," he says. For the first five year's of his career though Takita honed his skills, as many other high profile directors like Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Masayuki Suo, in only one genre - pinku eiga.
Takita first gained notoriety by producing the "Chikan densha" or "Groper Train" series of softcore sex films, 15 in all between 1981 and 1986, but as he explains it pink films are far removed from the lowest common denominator hardcore adult video market on this side of the Pacific. "Japanese Pink films, or Roman Porno films, are totally different from the North American and European sex films," he explains, "The Japanese style is to show eroticism. It's not the actual 100% sexual film, it's totally different. In Japanese film production, there are directors or creators who are dealing with those kinds of films. pink eiga, gang eiga, action eiga ... they approach those films with the same attitude. Just to create something interesting."
From cutting his teeth in pink films to accepting an Oscar onstage at the Kodak Theater in Hollywood is quite the journey though, so what was it about the "theme" of "Departures" that drew Takita to the project? "From the first impression of 'Departures', I'm over 50 now and gradually...," Takita pauses for a few seconds, long enough for me to notice the Buddhist payer beads that he's wearing on both his wrists, "Death up to now was a far away thing for me. I didn't want to see the death. But gradually as I'm getting over 50, death becomes closer and closer. The film is obviously about death, which is a necessary thing in life, but the important thing is that there is no pessimistic view - that life is together with death. That's the most important point ... that it's not pessimistic."
Despite its cross-cultural appeal Takita shares an interesting observation about the way in which U.S. audiences have received "Departures". I felt that from my visits to New York and L.A. that the reactions in the USA were quicker or more instant. The audiences in the USA, I guess, are more closely tied to the film industry so they have that kind of reaction, but there is a danger in that where they can just go the opposite way and really, really like it and the word gets spread that it's a really great movie, or they can quickly say 'No, this is a bad film.' It's YES/ NO, and this is very different from Japanese audiences." Thankfully it's obvious that the number of YESs have far outnumbered the NOs when it comes to "Departures" and it's a fair bet that that will remain the case for a long time to come.