Friday, June 26, 2009

Departures (Okuribito)

Departures (Okuribito おくりびと), directed by Takita Yôjirô 滝田洋二郎. This won the Oscar for best foreign film this year. Got lucky and was able to see it in a theater the other day.

Mokkun plays Daigo, a cellist whose orchestra goes out of business. Instead of sticking around in Tokyo and trying to find another gig, he takes his young wife back to his hometown of Yamagata. There he finally finds work as an “encoffiner” (nôkanshi 納棺師), working for Yamazaki Tsutomu’s character.

An encoffiner, as it’s explained, is sort of a subcontractor to the undertaker. In the old days, families would take care of preparing the body for cremation, and then the undertaker would pick up the bodies, take them to the funeral home, conduct the funeral, and arrange for the cremation. But these days fewer and fewer people know how to properly prepare a body for cremation, and they leave it to the undertakers; the undertakers subcontract this work out (at least in this movie) to specialists, the encoffiners.

The encoffiner cleans the body, arranges it, dresses it, and applies makeup to make it look like it did when it was alive, and then finally places the body in the coffin (no embalming, since in Japan basically everybody’s cremated). The whole thing is done with great solemnity and even ceremony, with the loved ones watching.

Daigo gets the job accidentally. He answers a want ad for a place that specializes in sending people on trips. He thinks it’s a travel agency. By the time he realizes what the job entails, he’s hired – the boss likes his looks, says he was born for the job, and won’t let him back out. At first, Daigo is freaked out; it’s one thing to take care of a person recently deceased of natural causes, but what about a body that’s been lying in the heat undiscovered for days?

Gradually Daigo gets used to the job, and in fact comes to appreciate not only its necessity but its beauty. His boss performs his duties with a dignity and an assurance that provides necessary strength to grieving families, and with a loving care that comforts the bereaved. The families are always better off for having seen someone apply such diligence and respect to the arrangement of their loved ones, and Daigo – along with the audience – comes to see the encoffiner as providing something akin to spiritual solace.

This part of the movie is impeccable. Both Yamazaki and Mokkun perform the encoffiner’s tasks with a grace and economy of motion appropriate to a dancer or a tea master. It’s a thing of beauty, and that it’s being performed on dead people makes you feel the essential rightness of it: you really want somebody to take such care with you when you’re dead. It’s easy to see how this can be an emotional experience for the families, and why in the end Daigo finds the job so fulfilling, so much like a calling. (I don’t know what the discourse on undertakers in Japan is, but this part of the movie reminded me of Taguchi Randy’s Konsento, which portrays undertakers in a similar light. This might be a thing.)

The conflict comes courtesy of Daigo’s wife Mika, Hirosue Ryôko. She accompanies Daigo back to Yamagata, quitting her web-design job in Tokyo; she tries to be a good sport about everything, but when she finds out that his new job involves working with corpses (he hides the nature of his job from her as long as he can), she flips and leaves him. “Unclean,” she calls him. Of course she comes back, and in the end comes to appreciate the nobility of what he’s doing. That’s her whole role: to first fail to appreciate, and then come to appreciate, the encoffiner’s nobility.

It’s a woefully underwritten part, and it’s not helped any by the fact that Hirosue, a teen idol who’s long past her sell-by date, is not just a lousy actress, but an annoying presence, cutesy and cloying every moment she’s on screen, except when she’s calling him “unclean.” Of course that moment is the only reason the character exists, but I didn’t really buy it. Yes, Japanese religion/culture involves ideas of ritual cleanliness that mean contact with the dead pollutes you. And so maybe I buy the fact that Daigo’s childhood friend in Yamagata – a hinterland town portrayed as a bastion of Traditional Japanese Goodness – might reject him for what he does. But Mika’s supposed to be a modern Tokyo girl – again, a web designer, for Pete’s sake – and I’m just not sure I buy her blurting out “unclean” when she finds out what he does. “Gross,” yes, but the word she uses (kegarawashii 汚らわしい・穢らわしい) so specifically ties her reaction to notions of ritual cleanliness that neither I nor my native informant (i.e. my wife) are sure this character would really retain to that extent.

There’s a whole subplot involving Daigo’s relationship with his estranged father, too – his father ran away when Daigo was a child, and they haven’t met since. You can probably imagine how this plays out in the movie, and you’re right. I found this subplot pretty uninvolving.

Which means that the peripheral stuff – the conflicts, the subplots, in fact all the characters besides Daigo and his boss (and his boss’s secretary, a trashy/sexy Woman with a Past, played to perfection by Yo Kimiko) – doesn’t really work.

What does work is the central depiction of Daigo and the job he does. This is handled so well, with just the right mix of poignancy and black humor, that it makes the whole movie worthwhile.

Mokkun is excellent, by the way. Another teen idol, just like Hirosue, but he’s as full and deep a presence as she is vapid.

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