A failed cellist connects with his inner undertaker, his rural hometown and his newly deceased father in the tonally eccentric, lushly scored meller "Departures."

A failed cellist connects with his inner undertaker, his rural hometown and his newly deceased father in the tonally eccentric, lushly scored meller “Departures.” Fascinating glimpses into a unique profession trump the pic’s emotional manipulation and substantial length, suggesting that its top prize in Montreal could lead to fest action and, following judicious postmortem editing, selected arthouse engagements. Shochiku will unveil the pic domestically September 13.

Crushed at the breakup of his Tokyo orchestra, for which he’d just spent a fortune on a new instrument, guilt-ridden Daigo Kobayashi (Masahiro Motoki) retreats to his picturesque northern Japan hometown with adoring wife Mika (Ryoko Hirosue, sparkly) in tow.

He responds to an ad for a job, and is shocked to discover “working with departures” refers not to a travel agency, but to “niche market” firms hired by morticians to perform “encoffinments.” Having never seen a dead body, but offered a great deal of money as salary by his eccentric new boss (Tsutomu Yamazaki, deadpan), Daigo takes the job but is too ashamed to tell Mika. Ick factor aside, Daigo’s discovered his true calling.

Inspired by Japanese author Shinmon Aoki’s mortician memoir, “Coffinman,” the pic’s best parts reveal the meticulous and stylized casketing of bodies for cremation. Performed — for that’s precisely the word to describe it — in front of family members in various stages of grief, the ritual involves washing, dressing and grooming the body; the trick is to do it while exposing a minimum of skin.

TV scribe Kundo Koyama’s first bigscreen script peppers the proceedings with rich character detail and near-screwball interludes that shouldn’t fit but somehow do, owing to Motoki’s appeal. More worrisome is a sappy montage at the 90 minute mark and a subsequent half-hour-plus that could be tightened considerably by vet helmer Yojiro Takita with no loss of impact. Hirosue has a perky appeal, and wily Yamazaki steals most of his scenes with a minimum of effort.

Tech credits are pro. Joe Hisaishi’s typically showy score never met a heartstring it couldn’t pluck, and those responsible for the corpses, be they prosthetics or actual thesps, knock ‘em dead.

Departures

Japan

Production

A Shochiku release of a Tokyo Broadcasting System, Sedic production. (International sales: Shochiku, Tokyo.) Produced by Yasuhiro Mase, Toshiaki Nakasawa, Toshihisa Watai. Directed by Yojiro Takita. Screenplay, Kundo Koyama.

Crew

Camera (color), Takeshi Hamada; editor, Akimasa Kawashima; music, Joe Hisaishi; production designer, Fumio Ogawa; costume designer, Katsuhiko Kitamura; sound (Dolby Digital), Satoru Ozaki. Reviewed at Montreal World Film Festival (competing), Aug. 23, 2008. Running time: 130 MIN.

With

Masahiro Motoki, Tsutomu Yamazaki, Ryoko Hirosue.
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