Filed in: Director Series
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A Bittersweet Journey into the Heartland of Japan

June 8, 2009 | By

The 2009 Best Foreign Language Academy Award winning film, Departures (Okuribito), takes the viewer into the heartland of Japan to experience a sacred part of Japanese cultural heritage—the ceremonial preparation of the dead for cremation in the presence of the bereaved. When cellist Daigo Kobayashi’s (Masahiro Motoki) orchestra disbands, he returns to his family home in the country where, through a misunderstanding, he is hired as a nokanshi (an encoffinator) to the dismay of his wife and friends. Encountering death in various forms, he develops a deep respect for life and a profound empathy for families dealing with the loss of a loved one. Yojiro Takita directs this bittersweet story with an acute understanding of character and human nature, delicately interweaving grief and humor while creating an affirmation of life.

BTL: How did you decide to take on a film with such unusual subject matter?

Yojiro Takita: A friend of mine, Yasuhiro Mase, a producer who has a production company, brought me a very early draft of the script. When I read it, I was intrigued by how it dealt with a nokanshi as a protagonist and the difficult and tricky subject matter of death. It was full of hope for tomorrow. It was not fully developed, but I came on board. As we started location scouting, the producer, screenwriter and I discussed different ideas and modified it quite a bit to turn it into the film it is today.

BTL: The locations showed a different side of Japan than what most Westerners normally see. How did you work with your location manager to find such distinct settings?

Takita: In Japan, it is typically the production manager who is responsible for scouting locations, and yet it is the director’s job to determine what direction the film will take and to give parameters for the locations. I was fortunate to have a very talented production chief by the name of Kaji Tajima who is from the prefecture of Yamagata where we filmed the project. The location became key to the film because Yamagata is blessed by beautiful country, but as you know, nature has a harsh side as well. It was important to show that harsh reality of life in the countryside, in addition to the beautiful elements. Ultimately the film is about Daigo and his journey home to discover not just himself, but also the other values in his town that are beginning to fade with urban life. It becomes a journey where he discovers these things, and then is able to take a step forward into the future with his wife. The location was instrumental in achieving that.

I was very careful in striking a balance while filming the extremely beautiful scenery in the scene where he plays the cello in the mountains. It is imperative to note that these beautiful mountains are not always visible; in fact, they are rarely visible in real life. It was important for me to be able to shoot these shots to show the beauty of the place, but to also balance that by showing the more banal, normal and rundown part of the town, to show the realism.

BTL: How did you work with production designer, Fumio Ogawa, to adapt the locations for the film, such as creating the subtle changes in Daigo’s mother’s house from when he first moves in, to how it evolves, and becomes more alive, as he grows into his new life?

Takita: It is of course a very odd, triangular space. Part of the thinking when we were looking for the house was that I didn’t want it to be too boring of a space for this protagonist. In many ways the house symbolizes his relationship with his parents. When we found it, we were fortunate because there was a river right behind it and the triangular space was visually interesting. The production designer came up with ideas like the triangular table, which they often dine on. What was important to us was that we were able to sense the age and the history of the house, which evokes memories of his parents and childhood. We could see those moments in his past, frozen in time. It was important for the production design to evoke that.

The other important location is the encoffination agency office. When you look at the space inside, it is clearly not a typical office space that you would find in Japan. When we found the building, the first impression we had as we looked up at the exterior is that it looked like something out of Psycho. That was the initial impression, but once we went inside we found it to be a very odd, but warm space. That was vital for this office.

BTL: The upstairs apartment of Sasaki the encoffinator was dressed almost like a greenhouse with all the plants. Obviously it was a metaphor for the character, who has a major effect on Daigo’s life. How did you and your art department, including set decorator Naomi Koike, decide on that approach?

Takita: The key was to reveal the character’s past without explaining it. We had to find ways of expressing it through his actions, such as when he is working, in scenes where he’s eating, and of course, through the space. When we thought about how to go about dressing the apartment above the office, that was probably the most difficult challenge in the location scouting and art direction process. I discussed ideas with veteran actor, Tsutomu Yamazaki, who plays the character. He suggested something that looked like a scene out of a Rousseau painting, something that has the sense of a very solitary life, yet is full of life and vitality at the same time. His idea was to include plants. If you recall the scene when he’s eating with Daigo, he mentions that eating is a part of life. We do it to survive. We eat animals. Animals in turn have to eat other organisms. The only things that don’t eat other life forms are plants. It was a hook, an idea that by putting in plants into the picture, we could inject a lot of organic life into the scene.

BTL: How did you communicate your ideas to the cinematographer Takeshi Hamada to get the visuals that you wanted?

Takita: The cinematographer and I had worked together on a number of projects. We work extremely well together. We’re a great fit. Takeshi and the assistant director [Hidetaka Nagahama] were key to this project. We had worked together as a team in Thailand on a shoot. That was a very difficult time where we were threatened with cancellation on a number of occasions, but we managed to get the film in the can. Going through those trials and tribulations made it feel like we had been to war together, so they’re very trusted colleagues now. It’s imperative to have faith in each other in these collaborations. On this film, because it’s so difficult to visualize how to go about telling a story that centers around death, it was very important to work with people that I trust. I am probably not overstating the matter when I say that lighting [gaffer, Hitoshi Takaya] helped to make the film what it is, in addition to the camera work. If you recall the scene where Daigo is driving, you see the windshield wipers going back and forth and through the windshield sometimes you can’t see the path. That scene is such an amazing metaphor for Daigo’s emotional state that, at times, I really felt like there was some higher being watching over us and guiding this project.

BTL: Your editor, Akimasa Kawashima, must have been key to shaping the story and creating the lyrical pacing that played such a large part in this film. Have you worked with him before?

Takita: This was my first time working with him. He’s actually a bit older than me, and quite a veteran of the industry, and of course, he’s more of a veteran in life than I am. It was my intention to work with somebody with a different sense of rhythm, so that the editor could bring something different to the project. I really admire that he has his own opinion. As you know, editing can change the film quite a bit. The editor can see things on the screen that weren’t seen by the crew when shooting the film. He did a marvelous job.

BTL: How did your composer contribute to the film?

Takita: Joe Hisaishi is an amazing talent. I worked with him on one prior film, which was a period film. He surprised me with his score. He taught me that if we have the right music added to the picture, the sum can be greater than its parts. This time around, I asked him to come up with music that centered around cello as the primary instrument, because that is the instrument that Daigo plays. Typically music is added after the film is put together. In this case I asked him to prepare a main theme piece using the cello that would become the primary theme throughout the film. I wanted it to be ready before we started shooting. He came up with an excellent piece. During the production of the film, everybody was constantly listening to the music. It really helped us to visualize a difficult subject matter. In the end, he came up with a very robust layered score that effectively translated the emotions of the characters and the narrative flow. Joe added depth and profundity to the film.

When we won the Oscar, I was extremely proud, not just that the film won, but because it was a recognition of the skills of the talented crew that I worked with on the film.

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