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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

Rated PG-13 | 2 hours, 11 minutes
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This is more about the living who deal with abandonment than a meditation on death. Very well paced, with a mix of humor, loss and excellent performances all around. The director's experience in pinku eiga provides a fresh honesty in dealing with subjects and a profession that are still socially uncomfortable for many. Tampopo fans may be inadvertently amused by the sight of Yamazaki gazing thoughtfully upon the departed, as the same reverence seems reserved for ramen.

June 5, 2009

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