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Mortician tale "Departures" surprises with Oscar

LOS ANGELES/TOKYO (Reuters) - “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.

" Departures" director Yojiro Takita (L) holds the Oscar for best foreign film beside actor Masahiro Motoki during the 81st Academy Awards in Hollywood, California February 22, 2009. REUTERS/Gary Hershorn

The movie was directed by Yojiro Takita and stars Masahiro Motoki as a musician who turns to the new career after 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.

“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.

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.

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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 of hand.

The initial idea for the film came from Motoki and took 10 years to reach fruition, becoming a labor 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.

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