(Regent) Masahiro Motoki, Tsutomu Yamazaki, Ryoko Hirosue, Kazuko Yoshiyuki, Kimiko Yo, Takashi Sasato, Taro Ishida, Yukiko Tachibano, Genjitsu Shu, Sanae Miyata, Toru Minegishi, Tetta Sugimoto. Directed by Yojiro Takita.
Death is a part of life that is completely inevitable. We all die. You will die. I will die. Someone we love will die. As a far different sort of movie once opined, how we deal with death is at least as important as how we deal with life.
Daigo Kobayashi (Motoki) is a cellist in a symphony orchestra that plays before half-empty houses in Tokyo. His perky wife Mika (Hirosue) thinks he’s a genius but then again she’s kind of a live action Hello Kitty figure. That’s when the bad news hits – the orchestra is being disbanded. Daigo is going to have to find a new job and he comes to the realization that as a cellist, he is second rate.
He decides to go back to the town he originally came from and live in the house he inherited from his recently deceased mother, whose funeral he missed because he was touring with the orchestra. She had used the ground floor of the house as a café, a holdover from the time before his father abandoned them when he was six years old. Daigo has lived the rest of his life resenting his father for his actions. His hatred for his father is the simple, straightforward emotion of a child who can’t understand why his parent doesn’t love him enough.
Needing to find work, Daigo answers an ad in a newspaper that is headlined “Departures.” Thinking that this is a travel agency, he answers the ad only to find out, to his horror, that the company is more concerned with the final departure. In the Japanese tradition, families at one time prepared the bodies of loved ones for the undertaker to cremate but that responsibility had been passed on to the undertakers who, in turn, had subcontracted the job out to other businesses. The process, called encoffinment, is considered very low on the Japanese totem pole and those who practice it are regarded with contempt.
However, the job pays well and Daigo is drawn to the business owner, Mr. Sasaki (Yamazaki), a bit of a throwback to the wise sage and mentor known primarily in the United States as Mr. Miyagi in The Karate Kid. He hides the nature of the job from his trusting wife who is overjoyed at the salary her husband is making, especially as they are being paid in cash.
Daigo has some problems acclimating. His first job is to pose as a corpse in an instructional video, and his first actual job concerns a corpse that had not been discovered until two weeks after the death of the deceased. However, as he sees the care and almost loving respect shown the bodies by Sasaki and the effect of that concern on the families, he comes to realize the importance of the ritual in the process of grieving. Although his wife is angered and ashamed at his newly chosen profession when she eventually finds out and in fact leaves him, he still continues with what has clearly become a calling to him. It is a calling that will enable him to confront his own feelings of loss when the time comes in which Daigo is forced to deal with them.
This was the 2009 Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Language Film, in a bit of an upset over much higher-regarded and better-distributed films. Although I haven’t seen all of the other nominees yet, I can tell you this is a movie clearly deserving of the honor. Director Takita and writer Kundo Koyama take no stance as to what happens after death – that is left for other forums. This is about the effect of death on the living, and how we deal with it. There is some humor here – this isn’t a downer at all, despite the subject matter. However, there are some moments of genuine pathos, as when a taciturn husband, who berates Sasaki and Daigo for arriving five minutes late, breaks down at the sight of his wife, beautifully made up by Sasaki.
The film is well-cast. Hirosue is elfin and beautiful, but also maternal and loving. She is the ultimate Japanese wife – respectful and submissive but with a mind of her own as well. Yamazaki is expressive with his concern and care, yet capable of a sly sense of humor. Motoki plays Daigo as conflicted at times but with a good heart. The characters all have hidden compartments of pain that serve to elevate them from stereotypes into human beings.
This is a quiet movie, meant to move the viewer to contemplation of difficult subjects. The cello dominates the soundtrack, giving it a mournful edge but the movie itself isn’t mournful. It is more of a celebration of life and the role that death plays in it. I wouldn’t say it is a heart-warming, uplifting movie – there are far too many tears for that – but it does have moments that are joyful.
The northern Japan landscapes are beautifully photographed, and the glimpses into Japanese culture are engrossing. This is a movie that stays with you long after the end credits roll. You are forced to confront the losses in your own life so be aware of that before renting.
In some ways this isn’t an easy movie to sit through. Anyone who has lost someone dear to them is going to be taken right back to those emotions but in a good way. Death is definitely the elephant in every room. We know it is with us always, and we are aware that sooner or later we are all going to make our own departure. Movies like this one may help to make those moments a little less frightening, particularly for those left behind. After all, death is more a concept for the living; the dead aren’t really concerned with it all that much.
WHY RENT THIS: A beautiful movie that offers a glimpse into Japanese culture, as well as giving an insight into grieving and loss. Well acted with characters that are more human than stereotype.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The subject matter makes this a difficult movie to watch at times, particularly for those who have lost someone dear to them recently. It is subtitled, which is a deal breaker for some moviegoers.
FAMILY VALUES: The subject matter may be a bit too much for less mature children, but some parents may wish to use the movie as a place to start discussions about death, especially in terms of making it less terrifying.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Japanese title is translated as “the sending away people” but the word “okuribito” is rarely used in Japan.
NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: None listed.
FINAL RATING: 9/10
TOMORROW: Sherlock Holmes