This weekend the Japanese Canadian Association of the Yukon presents a free showing of two excellent films from Japan. Playing on Friday is Departures, a gentle and profound semi-comedy on life and death.Kagemusha, an epic drama from the great Akira Kurosawa, is featured on Saturday.
Departures tells the story of Daigo Kobayashi, a cellist in a Tokyo orchestra. When the orchestra disbands and Daigo (played by Masahiro Motoki) finds himself unemployed, he decides to move back to his hometown with his wife and start over.
Searching for work, he answers a want ad for a person “assisting departures”, assuming that it’s employment with a travel agency.
Called to an interview, he soon finds out he’ll be working as a nokanshi, a funeral home employee who prepares the deceased for burial. Reluctantly accepting the job, he vaguely explains to his wife that he will be performing some sort of ceremony.
On his first day of work, his employer has him acting as a corpse in a DVD explaining funeral preparations and procedure. When his wife discovers the DVD, she threatens to leave him if he doesn’t give up such a disgusting profession.
Daigo refuses to quit, finding that he has grown a quiet sense of dignity and accomplishment in his new job. He gains the respect of his friends when he assists with funeral preparations for the mother of an old school chum.
When his own father dies, he becomes involved in a drama that reconciles him with his wife and he comes to terms with his relationship to the elder Kobayashi.
Departures won the Academy award for best foreign language film in 2009, and also won 10 Japan Academy awards – the Japanese equivalent of the Oscars – including best film and best actor.
Director Yôjirô Takita did not anticipate much commercial success in a land with strong taboos about discussion of death, but the film went on to earn critical acclaim and gross over $60 million in Japan, as well as an excellent box-office reception in North America.
Kagemusha derives its title from the Japanese “Shadow Warrior”, a term used to describe an impostor or impersonator. Set in 16th century imperial Japan, the film describes how the brother of a warlord named Shingen rescues a thief from imminent crucifixion.
The motivation for this act of altruism stems from the fact that the thief bears an uncanny resemblance to the warlord. The brother believes that the thief will prove useful, and he is groomed to become a stand-in for Shingen, a hedge against assassination attempts.
When Shingen does indeed meet his death, shot by a sniper as his troops are storming the castle of a rival clan, his death is kept secret. The stand-in is put into motion, unaware even himself that Shingen has died.
There follows a convoluted series of palace intrigues and more attacks against rival clans, with the thief growing in stature and presence from a lowly peasant to a truly imperial presence.
The successor to such Kurosawa classics as Yojimbo, Rashomon, Seven Samurai and Dersu Uzala, Kagemusha was the number one Japanese film on the domestic market on its release in 1980. It won the Palme d’Or at that year’s Cannes Film Festival, and was nominated best foreign language film at both the Golden Globes and the Academy awards, as well as winning a Cesar for best foreign film from France’s Academy.
Departures plays Friday, March 11 at 7:30 pm, and Kagemusha plays the following night at 7:30. Both films are free presentations at the Yukon Arts Centre, and both have English subtitles.