Monday, June 15, 2009

Death Becomes Him

Departures (Okuribito). 2008. Directed by Yojiro Takita. Written by Kundo Koyama, based on the book "Coffinman: The Journal of a Buddhist Mortician" by Shinmon Aoki. Produced by Toshiaki Nakazawa. Cinematography by Takeshi Hamada. Edited by Akimasa Kawashima. Music by Joe Hisaishi. Production design by Fumio Ogawa. Sound recording by Satoshi Ozaki. Costume design by Katsuhiko Kitamura.

Cast: Masahiro Motoki (Daigo Kobayashi), Tsutomu Yamazaki (Ikuei Sasaki), Ryoko Hirosue (Mika Kobayashi), Kimiko Yo (Yuriko Kamimura), Takashi Sasano (Shokichi Hirata), Kazuko Yoshiyuki (Tsuyako Yamashita), Tetta Sugimoto (Yamashita).

When you die, you want to die a beautiful death. But what makes for a beautiful death is not always clear. To die without suffering, to die without causing trouble to others, to die leaving behind a beautiful corpse, to die looking good – it’s not clear what is meant by a beautiful death. Does a beautiful death refer to the way you die or the condition of your corpse after death? This distinction is not clear.

Though the faces of the dead engross me, in the course of being in contact with the dead on a daily basis, I began to notice that the faces of the dead were invariably gentle ones. During their lives I don’t know what right or wrong they might have done, but it seems to have no bearing on them now. It doesn’t matter whether their beliefs were thick or thin, whether they belonged to this denomination or that, whether they were interested in religion or not. Nothing they have done goes to making the dead wear such gentle faces.

Day after day all I see are dead people. And so the dead appear to me as serene, even beautiful. By contrast, the despicableness of the living began to irk me – the living, who, out of their fear of death, peer into the faces of the dead with fear and trepidation in their eyes. As they watch me washing the deceased, I can sense their lines of sight mixed with feelings of alarm, fear, sadness, affection, and anger piercing me from behind.

-- Shinmon Aoki, Coffinman: The Journal of a Buddhist Mortician, the basis for Departures

At this year’s Academy Awards, an event at which every result seems more and more to be preordained far in advance, there was a very rare occurrence: a genuine surprise. That would be Departures, the latest film from veteran Japanese director Yojiro Takita, winning the best foreign film Oscar, shocking all observers (including the filmmakers themselves) and throwing a monkey wrench in Oscar pools across the nation. Such a turn of events would have been the last one would have expected for a director who got his start in the “pink film” (Japanese soft-core sex film) industry, turning out films with such titles as Groper Train. Since then, Takita moved into mainstream features, becoming quite successful doing so, a versatile and eclectic filmmaker working in many different genres, having box office success with Onmyoji (The Ying-Yang Master) (2001) and When the Last Sword is Drawn (2004).

As baffling as the victory of Departures at the Oscars over much more highly touted films may have seemed to many, once one actually sees the film, it’s not hard to see why this upset happened. The style of Departures is as straightforward and old-fashioned as it gets; in many ways, the film is a throwback to older films released by Shochiku Studios, the famed Japanese studio that released this film in Japan. Departures also deals with the subject of death – combine that with the fact that many of the Academy voters are, shall we say, of somewhat advanced age, it’s no surprise that these themes resonated greatly with many who saw the film.

Departures centers on Daigo Kobayashi (Masahiro Motoki), a cellist whose orchestra has been dissolved because of bankruptcy. Now forced to give up on his dream of being a world-famous musician, he moves from Tokyo back to his hometown, his loving wife Mika (Ryoko Hirosue) in tow. Answering a deceptive newspaper ad (a typo in the ad copy leads him to believe he's applying for a travel agency), Daigo becomes an “encoffiner” (or nokanshi in Japanese), one who performs the ritualistic practice of washing, dressing, and placing the deceased in coffins for cremation, all done in the presence of the bereaved. Daigo gets over his initial squeamishness to become quite adept at his new profession, all under the watchful eye of his boss, Sasaki (Tsutomu Yamazaki). However, he must suffer the prejudice of others who find his profession shameful, unfortunately including his wife. Also, Daigo’s own attitudes about death and closure are challenged when he must perform these duties on a long-lost relative.

Departures has been tagged by a number of commentators with that dreaded adjective “sentimental,” which these days has become an epithet, a mark of shame. And indeed, there is much about this film that is not very fashionable, from its slow, deliberate pace to its gentle comedy and unabashedly tear-jerking scenes. Sentimental it may be, but so what? There is nothing wrong with sentiment if it feels truly earned and not crudely manipulative, a feat that Departures succeeds at swimmingly. I found the film very moving, and it spoke to me quite powerfully. Viewers (and critics) willing to drop their cynicism will find themselves reflecting on the losses of their own loved ones, and what it means to confront death, much as I did. The result is a moving, powerful experience. The repeated depictions of the careful and respectful honoring of the deceased’s passage to the afterlife gain resonance with each successive scene. The film is not all tears and somber atmosphere, however; there is much room for humor in this scenario. One great example occurs in the film’s very first scene, in which Daigo, while preparing the body of a deceased young woman, finds that she is not all she appears to be.

Yojiro Takita, much like his protagonist, is a consummate professional as a filmmaker, his unadorned, un-flashy style always at the service of his narrative and the wonderful performances across the board, especially Masahiro Motoki (Shall We Dance?, The Bird People in China) the driving force behind this film. This project originated with Motoki, who was greatly moved and inspired by the book Coffinman, the memoir by Shinmon Aoki, a nokanshi who set down his reminiscences of a life in this profession. Departures is not a direct adaptation of the book, to be sure. Aoki’s book has a far more contemplative and philosophical tone, with frequent digressions on Buddhism and literature that serve to inform Aoki’s reflections on his life experiences. However, like Departures, Coffinman is a beautiful work in its own right, and well worth seeking out.

Departures is buoyed by its excellent cast, who are all given ample opportunities to shine. Motoki deftly handles the myriad changes his character experiences, and has obviously put great care into his preparation of the encoffining ritual, as well as playing the cello (Motoki played the instrument live on set), which beautifully deepens his portrayal. Tsutomu Yamazaki (High and Low, Tampopo, A Taxing Woman) brings a wonderful deadpan humor to his role as Daigo’s boss. Kimiko Yo (Café Lumiere) is also quirkily funny as the funeral company secretary, and Ryoko Hirosue (Wasabi) is quite affecting as Daigo’s wife, a role that becomes much more than the standard long-suffering wife portrayal that it initially appears to be.

Shinmon Aoki's book Coffinman can be purchased from Amazon.


Sq. Dave said...

Nice review. While I appreciated many aspects of Departures, I did find its sentimentality a tad manipulative. Perhaps it was the use of music, or the melodramatic treatment given to the dilemma of Daigo's job. Yet this is also what made the film interesting; that it was about death, and how the service of the encoffiner is indispensable yet stigmatized. It certainly was more subtle than most Hollywood films of a similar scale, certainly most Oscar winners. Yet it wasn't hard to predict where it was going and to what end. Mo-kun is always great to watch, and Yamazaki is one of the greatest character actors of Japanese cinema. Daigo's hometown in Yamagata was so serene and peaceful, a perfect backdrop for the quiet drama of the conflict between encoffiner and society.

Author: Christopher Bourne said...

Hi Dave, thanks for your comments. You make very interesting and compelling points. I guess for me, elements of the film such as the very beautifully staged depictions of the encoffining ritual, the evocative settings, and especially the great supporting performances by Yamazaki (who I love to watch also), Kimiko Yo, and others, were strong enough that the sentimental elements didn't bother me as much as it did other people. The admittedly predictable narrative to me was ultimately less important than its mood and atmosphere, which I found very moving.

Thanks again for reading, and see you at Japan Cuts!