Japan's Double Oscar Victory

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(c) 2008 Departures Film Partners

A film still from Departures, directed by Yojiro Takita, and 2009 winner of the Oscar for Best Foreign Language film

It's not quite Slumdog's tale of rags to riches — more like shining maggots to Oscar gold. The path that led Japan to take its first Oscar in Best Foreign Language film at this week's Academy Awards started with the film's lead actor, Masahiro Motoki, contacting author Shinmon Aoki to quote a passage of his novel Coffinman: The Journal of a Buddhist Mortician in the actor's own travel diary. "Maggots are life, too," the passage, in the voice of the novel's protagonist, reads. "When I thought that, I could see the maggots shining."

Two days after the Academy Awards ceremony in Hollywood, at least a thousand people lined up at movie theaters in Tokyo's Marunouchi district to see the film for which director Yojiro Takita brought home an Oscar. Departures (Okuribito) is the comical and dramatic story of an unemployed cellist who finds work cleaning and preparing the deceased for burial. The film has already grossed more than $34 million in Japan since its September 2008 release. (The film is scheduled for limited released in the U.S. in May.) Sales of Aoki's novel, on which the film is based, have spiked, along with advance sales of the DVD. (See pictures of the top 10 Oscar Dresses.)

The win came as a surprise to many — and none more than Takita, the director, who hadn't prepared an acceptance speech. Not only was it the first time Japan has ever taken home two Oscars — the 12-minute The House of Small Cubes (Tsumiki no Ie) also won for Best Animated Short — but both films were in categories never before won by Japanese films. Departures won an upset victory over the Israeli animated documentary Waltz with Bashir and the French entry The Class, the story of a Paris schoolteacher. The last time that a Japanese film was nominated for the category of Foreign Language Film was with The Twilight Samurai in 2003. Samurai, The Legend of Musashi won an honorary foreign language film award in 1955 — but that was a year before the 1956 establishment of the foreign language category. (See pictures of some of the greatest ever animated movies.)

The turning point for Departures, which won the Grand Prix at the Montreal World Film Festival, may have been earlier this year, when the film won the audience prize at the Palm Springs International Film Festival in January. "For me that's a bellwether," says Japanese film critic Mark Schilling."A lot of the Academy members live in Palm Springs and go to that film festival. They liked what they saw. I thought they responded to the craft of [the film], and the quality of it." Sachiko Watanabe, a veteran film critic for 35 years, says Sunday's wins herald that the era in which Japanese films are judged with a sense of exoticism is over. "The fact that the Academy Awards recognized this is a big encouragement to the Japanese film industry," she says. Festivals like Berlin, Venice and Cannes have recently given more recognition to Japanese films, of which more than 400 were released last year in the domestic market. They now outnumber foreign films being shown in Japan, and increased competition in the film industry is slowly improving the quality of films and creating an environment for movies like Departures, to rise to the top. (See pictures of Japan.)

Despite a quiet opening in Japan, Schilling said he was hopeful that Departures would win. "The film didn't have blockbuster written all over it when it was released, and I don't think the producers and distributors had great expectations," he says. "But word got out that it was more than a film for old people and it became a mass phenomenon in Japan." Takita, 53, got his start in adult films but, until now, is probably most remembered as the director of the 1999 film Secret (Himitsu), which was eventually reamde by French director Luc Besson. Takita beamed as he spoke upon receiving the Oscar. "This is a new 'departure' for me. And I will — we will — be back." he said. Perhaps this year is the harbinger of future Hollywood endings for the Japanese film industry.

With reporting by Yuki Oda

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