(For more stories from the Oscars, click [ID:nN20540799])
By Bob Tourtellotte and Isabel Reynolds
LOS ANGELES/TOKYO Feb 22 "Departures", a
Japanese movie 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 turns to the new career after his
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.
"I saw the Israeli movie which I honestly had thought would
win as it was wonderful," Motoki told reporters. "So I walked the
red carpet as a hanger-on who just observes the ceremony. Now I
regret that I did not walk with more confidence."
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 a 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," said the director,
who, like many Japanese directors, started his career with a
series of adult films.
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
The initial idea for the film came from Motoki and 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, a 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 like a professional while
Takita attended funeral rituals to gain an understanding of how
families react. (For a Jan. 30 interview with the director, click
The award struck a chord with moviegoers in Tokyo, in the
midst of a deepening recession in Japan.
"I am really proud of it," said 63-year-old self-employed
Tokyo resident Kei Noguchi. "There are a lot of bad things
happening these days so it really tickles my sense of pride."
"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, Yoko Nishikawa, Yoko Kubota and Anna Yokoyama in TOKYO;
Editing by Dean Goodman and Rodney Joyce)