In 2009, the winner of the Best Foreign Film award at the Oscars was Departures (Okuribito), directed by Yojiro Takita.
Takita is a veteran director who made his early living directing a series of ‘pink films’ (the Japanese term for soft porn), before graduating to more serious fare. His breakthrough year was in 1994 when he was nominated as Best Director at the Japanese Academy for two different films which he had released the previous year – Made in Japan and Shinjuku Shark – an amazing achievement. Sadly, I have yet to watch or even find a subtitled copy of either of these films.
His 2004 samurai film, When The Last Sword is Drawn won the Japanese Academy Award for Best Film. He then hit the mother lode with this film Okuribito, released in 2008. It is a back-to-the-roots story in which young cellist, Daigo Kobayashi (played by former J-pop star Masahiro Motoki) quits his job in Tokyo and returns with his wife to his hometown Yamagata. He has decided to honor his mother’s last wishes and live in the house that she left to him following her death 2 years earlier. He answers an ad in the paper, mistakenly believing it to be for a travel agency assistant (the ad says “assisting departures”) only to find himself employed as an assistant at a funeral parlor – specifically, to clean, prepare and dress the recently deceased for the viewing at the wake.
What follows is an incredible story of self-discovery; the owner of the funeral service (Japanese acting veteran Tsutomu Yamazaki) plays the classical role of the ‘wise old man’ who helps the young protagonist find his way. It is not an easy journey; his wife as well as other townsfolk (including some of his deceased mother’s friends) are appalled at his new profession. He perseveres, initially out of a sense of duty to the funeral parlor owner and eventually out of a sense of fulfillment that he is bringing closure to all these bereaved families. He also must come to terms with his feelings towards his father who left the family when he was only 6 years old. There are some truly fascinating scenes showing Kobayashi at work reverentially preparing the dead, for which actor Motoki spent several hours of dedicated study. The movie is funny, bittersweet and at times, unabashedly sentimental. The music by Joe Hisaishi (the man who has scored the soundtracks for many Miyazaki films) pulls at the heartstrings. The main theme ‘Memory’ is an instant classic and I had written briefly about it in an earlier series of posts about my favourite soundtracks.
As much as I love Kurosawa’s samurai films, I would say that if there is one Japanese film you would watch in your life, it should be Okuribito.