So we have traversed the halfway point of this review series and have also traversed halfway across the world for our next film of No-English Moviember. I hope that you enjoy this review of the Japanese drama film Okuribito (English: Departures).
Daigo Kobayashi (Masahiro Motoki), a cellist in an orchestra, loses his job after the orchestra disbands which forces him and his wife Mika (Ryōko Hirosue) to move from Tokyo to Daigo’s hometown.
Looking for work, Daigo finds a job in a newspaper for “assisting departures” which he assumes is a job working with a travel agency but, upon arriving at the office, learns from the secretary Yuriko Kamimura (Kimiko Yo) that he will be preparing bodies for cremation. Reluctant, Daigo still goes through with the brisk interview and gets the job handed to him with a cash advance on his pay.
From then on Daigo becomes more involved in the process of “encoffinment” as well as having the taboo of death being placed upon him by society, as well as dealing with the personal demon of the death of his mother and the anger he feels towards his absent father.
Death isn’t a particularly big taboo in the UK, or at least I don’t think it is. We have our euphemisms for dying, i.e.: kicked the bucket, but death is seen as part and partial of life. Japan on the other hand has a completely different take on death. Death, and everything that is related to it, is viewed as an unclean affair, with purifying rituals being performed by those who come in contact with the dead.
Undertakers, due to their business being of handling the dead, have been stigmatised in Japanese culture, being known as kegare (defilement). Those whose work involved the process of death in the feudal era, such as executioners, slaughterhouse workers and butchers, had to live in hamlets or ghettos, being the bottom of the Japanese social hierarchy.
Although attitudes have changed since then, the taboo has remained strong and Okuribito tackles this taboo head on. The ceremony of encoffinment is treated with complete dignity, showing that the utmost care must be taken with the corpses as they were once alive and so they must be made to look like they were in life, rather than what they are in death.
Right from Okuribito’s start it goes for the jugular, having Daigo and his boss Sasaki (Tsutomu Yamazaki) tending to the encoffinment of a young man, who viewed himself as female, who committed suicide.
Taking transvestitism and suicide head on in a film that is already taking huge taking the taboo of those who deal with death head on was a phenomenally brave, and brilliant, way to set this film up as it continues in the same vein for throughout the film, demystifying taboos for what they really are.
Okuribito also has a non-compromising look at those who judge Daigo for his profession, with an old friend of Daigo telling him to get a “proper job” and Daigo’s wife Mika finding his job to be a shame on the family, returning to Tokyo once she learns the truth. The reality of being someone who works with death is made abundantly and harshly clear, making you look at how we view death and those who work with them in a different light having looked at how they are treated in a different culture.
I must give credit to Masahiro Motoki and Tsutomu Yamazaki respectively as they complement each other in excellent fashion, providing both humour and pathos when needed in exact measures. Yamazaki as Sasaki proving to be an unexpected master of deadpan humour, with the interview, if one can call it that, coming out of nothing to make you half-laugh in shock at the abruptness of it all.
Motoki as Daigo handles the role of leading man very well, from the bemused man of the strange and misunderstood interview, to the embittered man against his father, to the learning then professional encoffiner, not forgetting of course the foil to Sasaki’s sometimes unintentional bizarre and funny tasks.
Speaking of the humour, it is strange to find a film that has so many meaningful moments to have an equal amount of weird and wonderful moments of comedy. Most of it comes straight out of the blue, without any warning which makes it all the more funnier when it does happen. Yet beauty, meaning and due reverence are not lost because of it, rather enhanced because of the time taken to give that awkward, quirky humour.
If there was one thing I would criticise about this film it is not the acting, although it occasionally drifts into melodramatic although that is limited to one or two scenes, it is moments when they eat. Oh how they grate against my eardrums like someone clawing at Styrofoam in one hand whilst scratching a plate with a fork with the other.
I realise it is traditional for people in Japan to make noises while they eat to show they are enjoying it, but my God did it make me want to tear my own skin off with uncomfortableness. If they ate quietly I would say this film was near on perfect. I know this is a personal gripe but damn it’s so annoying.
Finishing up, I’d just like to say that Okuribito is definitely worth your time. It takes a look at death in a way that you might not otherwise see it, balances light and heavy moments equally and the acting, for the most part, is exquisitely done. It’s a poignant film that everyone should watch at least once.
Thanks for reading! I hope you enjoyed reading my review of Okuribito then please check out my other No-English Moviember review by clicking the link. If you liked what you read and want to see more from me then please follow me here on WordPress or even on Facebook and Twitter as well.
Also, if you fancy writing for The Chronic Chronicler, then send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks again for reading! Next week we’ll be looking at the French film Intouchables (English: Untouchable).