Posted on 8/27/12 04:37 AM
There are few films that delve into the Japanese art of beautifying the dead. Nonetheless, Y?jir? Takita's 2008 film "Departures (Okuribito)", which took home the best Foreign Language prize at the 2009 Academy Awards, does exactly that.
The film is loosely adapted from Aoki' Simmon's 2002 autobiography, "Coffinman: the Journal of a Buddhist Mortician". Hero Diago (played by former boyband heartthrob Masahiro Motoki) is a down-on-his- luck Tokyo cellist who loses his job when his orchestra disbands.
He returns to his remote home-town with his meek, adoring wife Mika (Riyoki Hurosue) and takes residence in his late mother's house in an effort to reinvent himself. He discovers a newspaper advertisement for what he thinks is a travel agency helping out with "departures", only to learn that the position is for a firm that specialises in departures of a very different kind. A departure from which no traveler returns: death. This fosters his initiation into the subtle art of "encoffinment". The story that follows is a moving portrait of living with death as our protagonist must overcome his revulsion at his new line of work, while confronting some personal demons.
The ensemble is appropriately dramatic. Particularly notable is the leading man as well as his mentor Mr. Sasaki (Tsutomu Yamazaki) who hires him and Yuriko Uemura (Kimiko Yo), a fellow employee at the funeral agency.
"Departures" follows in the path of other distinguished Japanese cinema such as Kurosawa's "Ikiru" and Juzo's "The Funeral". But while "Ikuru" and "The Funeral", focus more on the repercussions of death, "Departures" centres on the ceremony, the rituals of encoffinment and the passing into the afterlife. The film looks at abandonment, both in life and death as a cruel certainty. The film's greatest asset is its shimmering and poignant cinematography. A wind-tossed cherry blossom tree in such a film is inevitable, coming to life in spring to remind the Japanese that life is renewed after winter, only to die quickly after. In appreciating that transience, the Japanese seek to define themselves.
By framing the harshness of death with the gentle treatment of the dead at the hands of Diago, the audience sees how the caring preparation of the body allows it to be softly ushered towards the final stop. This juxtaposition simultaneously confronts the taboo role of a figure who continually faces death, but creates an art form; one which is imbued with kindness and beauty.
Aided by the use of classical music that decorates the soundtrack, Takita juxtaposes the sacred and the profane in a soft, pretty film lined with enough perversity to arrest the viewer. The film's alignment of the sublime and ridiculous is sparing, but enriches the tale.
In 2009, this film beat out the critically acclaimed, "Waltz with Bashir" and "The Class", to win the Best Foreign Film prize at the Oscars. Beneath its pretty, emotional fašade lie many layers that touch on the grizzly yet entirely normal nature of mortality. It's all there if you scratch beneath the surface.