06/28/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Interview: Director, Star of Oscar-Winner Departures

When Departures won the Oscar in February as best foreign-language film, no one was more surprised than director Yojiro Takita.

But then, Departures was a surprise hit in its native Japan. The story of a cellist who loses his job and finds a new calling preparing bodies for burial, the film is an engrossingly soulful story of the many forms artistry takes and the way empathy and affection can give depth and meaning to the grieving process.

As Takita and Masahiro Motoki, the film's star (and the driving force behind getting the picture made), said in a recent interview in New York (conducted through a translator), Departures has always been "the little movie that could."

Q: Departures depicts a process called encoffining, in which the main character of the film washes and prepares the corpse for the coffin, in a ritual performed before the family. Is this a common practice in Japan?

Motoki: No, most Japanese learned about the practice through this film. It's a dying ritual that persists in a few areas. It's hardly common. It does linger. You can order it as part of a funeral service. But it's hardly common or typical.

Takita: It used to be a community ritual that was done out of love and respect, as opposed to a business. Washing and purifying the dead is now professionalized. It has become popularized because the film was a monster hit.

Motoki: It was only established as a profession in the 1960s. It's making a comeback. Young people are starting to consider it as a legitimate profession. What's most important about the technique is the overall approach. It's not about putting yourself in the spotlight. You're performing a ritual on the corpse on behalf of the family. You create an atmosphere on behalf of the family. It's hard to master.

Q: The ritual itself seems very quiet and still. What was the challenge of filming it?

Takita: The biggest challenge was how to portray this in a way that was the most cinematic, to capture the light. My goal was to make the audience feel like they're sitting on the floor with the bereaved family.

Q: There's a surprising amount of humor, given the subject matter. How did you find the right balance?

Takita: I think the serious and the humor go hand in hand. The more earnest you are, the funnier it is from a different angle. It's a nice combination without intentionally trying to make the audience laugh. You want to elicit organic humor.

Motoki: The key element in the first half is to highlight how pathetic his situation is. He's lost his job, he's in debt, he's back in his hometown and now he goes to work in this shabby office. He has to go through his own pilgrim's progress to find himself. I find humor in that.

Takita: It's a delicate decision that only an audience can decide. We had an internal discussion. We decided that if there is humor, we should make it explicit. If not, keep it simple and clear.

Motoki: Our goal was never slapstick but an empathetic chuckle.

Takita: We wanted it as long as it was central to the character being clearly defined and helping audience identification, if we can elicit humor and laughter with a small gesture or movement.

For the rest of this interview, click here to go to my website:

For a review of Departures, click here.