In the modern world we have become quite estranged from the natural process of death. When my grandmother was growing up in rural Ontario death was accepted part of life and bodies were laid out on the dining room table to be cleaned and dressed before being laid in a simple coffin in the living room for visitation. Today, when loved ones die strangers take care of preparing the body for funeral services. People who work in funeral services are often stigmatized for it, as was revealed on the US program The Bachelor when a beautiful young funeral director vied for the prize.
In Japan, the stigma is even greater because of the history of people who worked with the dead being ostracized as burakumin (untouchables). The descendants of the burakumin are still the victims of oppression in Japan and people who work with the dead still risk being stigmatized in their community as “unclean.” Yōjirō Takita’s Oscar-winning film Departures (おくりびと, 2008) tenderly explores this issue with the tale of Daigo Kobayashi (Masahiro Motoki), a young cellist who suddenly loses his job in a Tokyo orchestra. He decides to return to his home town in Yamagata prefecture with the support of his wife Mika (Ryōko Hirosue) to look for work.
Soon after their arrival, Kobayashi answers an advertisement in the newspaper for a company looking for someone to assist with “tabi” (旅) which he interprets as “travel”. However, the “travel” that is meant in the ad is not to do with a physical journey but a spiritual one and Kobayashi finds himself employed as the apprentice of a man called Sasaki (Tsutomu Yamazaki) who ceremonially prepares the dead for their journey into the next life.
The pay for this work is generous so Kobayashi gives it the old college try, but it takes some getting used to and his emotional turmoil is amplified by the fact that he is afraid to tell his wife the truth about what his new job entails. It turns out that Kobayashi is an ideal candidate for the job because he understands what it means to suffer loss. His father walked out on his family when he was six and he missed the funeral of his mother two years earlier because he was too busy to return home. The film follows Kobayashi’s acceptance of his new work as his vocation with warmth and depth and his story is bolstered by cleverly written subplots concerning his lost father, the family that runs the local bath house, and Kobayashi’s co-workers.
Cinematically, the film does not really stand out from the crowd, which is why it was such a shock to many that it won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film over the Israeli animated documentary Waltz with Bashir (Ari Folman, 2008). In terms of subject matter, it was very brave of the filmmakers to take on the taboo subject of preparing bodies for death. The strong storyline and superb acting is complemented by the glorious location shooting in Sakata, Yamagata. If I were still living in Japan I would be immediately planning a getaway to the region for some hill walking. I am also quite partial to the violoncello and the score by Joe Hisaishi is beautifully written and performed (available from cdjapan).
I watched the German DVD release of this film Nokan: Die Kunst des Ausklangs which has a 16 minute interview with Takita as an extra.
The DVD is also available in the US, the UK, and elsewhere.