February 23, 2009 / 4:42 AM / 10 years ago

UPDATE 2-Mortician tale "Departures" surprises with Oscar

(For more stories from the Oscars, click [ID:nN20540799]) (Adds comments)

LOS ANGELES, Feb 22 (Reuters) - The Japanese movie “Departures”, about an out-of-work cellist who takes a job as an undertaker preparing corpses for cremation, was the surprise winner of the Oscar for best foreign language film on Sunday.

The movie was directed by Yojiro Takita and stars Masahiro Motoki as a musician who loses his job when his orchestra folds.

It was an upset win, after the Israeli animated documentary “Waltz with Bashir” was widely tipped to take the honor. A second Japanese movie won an Oscar for best animated short film.

The award for best picture and a raft of other Oscars went to rags-to-riches romance “Slumdog Millionaire,” directed by Briton Danny Boyle. [ID:nN22321218]

In “Departures”, Motoki’s unemployed character sells his expensive cello and moves with his wife to the snowy northern town where he grew up, in an attempt to start a new life.

Answering a mysterious job ad for someone to “help with journeys” lands him a post as an apprentice mortician, something he feels obliged to hide from his wife.

To his surprise, he discovers that he has an aptitude for the job, which teaches him about life and death.

“Japanese people tend to avoid the topic of death and treat it as taboo,” Takita told reporters. “I was uncertain and worried about how this movie would be released and whether people would accept it.”

Unlike their counterparts in many countries, Japan’s “noukanshi” morticians perform cleansing and beautifying services in the presence of the bereaved family, in a ritual that combines an atmosphere of sympathy and reverence with a magician’s sleight of hand.

The initial idea for the film came from lead actor Motoki, but it took 10 years to reach fruition, becoming a labour of love for cast and staff who did not expect a box office hit, said Japan-based film critic Mark Schilling, an old friend of the director.

“It’s a great audience film,” he said. “It’s got comedy, it’s got emotions. It’s dealing with something that everybody has to deal with, but in an unusual and interesting way.”

Motoki spent months learning to play the cello and rehearsing funeral rites until he could perform them like a professional, while Takita also attended a number of funeral rituals to gain an understanding of how families react. (For a Jan. 30 interview with the director, click [ID:nT179956])

“Departures”, already a hit in Japan, is scheduled for limited release in the United States in May, with screenings planned in nearly 30 other countries.

Another Japanese film, “Tsumiki no Ie”, or La Maison en Petits Cubes, won the Oscar for the best animated short film.

The 12-minute film, directed by Kunio Kato, portrays the life of an old man who battles floods caused by global warming. (Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis in LOS ANGELES and Isabel Reynolds and Yoko Kubota in TOKYO; Editing by Dean Goodman and Rodney Joyce)

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