Japan’s Oscar-winner for foreign film is without apology in the sentimental mode, a classification now out of fashion if never (secretly) out of favor. Directed by the veteran Yojiro Takita, it tells of a laid-off cellist, self-admittedly second-rate, who returns from Tokyo to his hometown and answers an ambiguously worded want ad — “working with departures” — expecting something like a travel agency and finding instead an “encoffining” service, preparing corpses for burial in front of an audience of their survivors: “It’s a niche market.” The vocation, though taken to with initial distaste, turns out to be a tailor-made cinematic spectacle — a testament to the Japanese capacity to transform a chore into a ritual and an art — and the little drolleries of the awkward early stages do not prepare us for such breathless high points as the first time we see the old master at work on a body or the first time the squeamish wife sees her husband, the new apprentice, at the same work. If, especially in those early stages, the apprentice is a bit overacted by Masahiro Motoki, a bit pop-eyed and drop-jawed, he is more than made up for by the restraint, the repose, the composure of his master, Tsutomu Yamazaki, a face familiar from the works of Juzo Itami, The Funeral, Tampopo, A Taxing Woman. The emotional effect might have been more powerful, or at least met with less resistance, without the syrupy background music. But that’s just part of the all-over lack of apology. Manipulation the film may be, but deft manipulation. (2008) — Duncan Shepherd
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