The 2009 Oscar winner that no one predicted was the Japanese movie “Okuribito” (Departures) receiving the best foreign-language film award rather than “Waltz with Bashir” or “The Class.” The movie had not been released in America beyond the Hawaii Film Festival and only had a limited release in May 2009 after winning the award. It has now arrived on DVD with a trailer and a (dubbed) eleven-minute interview with director Takita Yôjirô (Onmyoji*, When the Last Sword Is Drawn, both gorgeously shot historical dramas).
Takita said that he wanted the audience to know from the first scene that the movie about a professional cellist, Kobayashi Daigo (Motoki Masahiro), who returns home to Sakata when the orchestra that employed him in Tokyo dissolves and inadvertently discovers a vocation preparing the dead to be encoffined, is not grim. What is comic is not politically correct, but shows not only the tact of the encoffiners but that their work, done in front of funeral audiences can provide comfort to the living.
The movie then flashes back to Tokyo and Daigo deciding he does not have enough talent to make a living as a cellist. He has inherited the house (the downstairs of which had been a coffee bar run by his mother until her death a few years earlier and before that as a liquor bar run by his father who ran off with a waitress when Daigo was six) in Sakata, sells the cello which is far from paid off, and is at loss for what to do in his hometown.
He thinks that “arranging departures” in a newspaper want-ad must mean that he is going to a travel agency. He has no idea what “NK” in the ad means (nokanshi is an encoffiner). It turns out that it is arranging the departed. The widower who runs the encoffining business (Yamazaki Tsutomu) is sure that Daigo has a vocation (and/or has been unsuccessful in hiring an assistant). His certainty and upfront cash payments convince Daigo to try.
He gets off to a hideous start with a woman who has been moldering undiscovered for two weeks. After that trauma he rushes to a traditional bathhouse to wash off the stink. The grandmother who runs it is a node of the network of characters in the movie and became the stimulus for tears from me. (I saw the movie on what would have been my deceased mother’s birthday, so may have been extra-susceptible.)
Daigo is shunned for his new occupation, at least until the shunners see him in action. I think we the movie viewers do not need to see him preparing quite as many corpses as we do, but I generally think that Japanese movies are longer than they need to be, beautifully composed as every shot is.
I suppose that some of the outdoor shots of mountains, snow, river, and sea don’t advance the plot either, but I would not cut any of them. The total running time is 131 minutes. Even though the closing credits approach 4 minutes in length, this is a long movie.
Around the half-hour mark I was surprised that the movie had won an Oscar, but eventually it gripped me (and made me cry). Masahiro Motoki and Tsutomu Yamazaki won Japanese Film Academy Awards (actor and supporting actor) for performances of great subtlety and restrained power. As Daigo’s wife, Mika (Hirosue Ryoko) comes into her own late in the movie (having been a dutiful and conventional wife through the first two-thirds).
Yo Kimiko, who won the Japanese Academy Award for best supporting actress, is wry and ultimately moving as the NK receptionist. I didn’t catch the name of the bathhouse owner, but the actresses who played her was also outstanding.
The cello music, written by Joe Hisaishi (who won a Japanese Academy Award for another 2008 score), borders on sentimentality and seems ubiquitous — all the better to set off a crucial scene with no background or foreground music. Motoki Masahiro looks like an earnest man in his late-20s (perhaps having an about-to-turn-30 crisis along with unresolved father issues), though he was 44 (a very fit 44 as the bath scenes show). Takita’s bonus interview reports that the initial idea for the movie had been Motoki’s—15 years earlier. (I remember him as another earnest and more befuddled young man in Miike Takashi’s haunting “The Bird People in China” a decade earlier.)
Perhaps if I had not been recovering from the previous corpse preparations (and the epiphanies of two characters during it), I might have found the ending Disneyesque, but my critical faculty was dimmed.
I’m not sure if “Okuribito” was the best movie not in English from 2008, but even after years of “Six Feet Under,” I was moved by Daigo and his new vocation, and think that it was.
Takita Yojiro ‘s “Onmyoji” (in-Yang Master, 2001) is set back in Hêian times, focusing on a historical figure, Abe no Seimei, who became legendary as a wizard who saved the capital (now Kyoto). Nomura Mansai is very impressive as the most powerful onmyoji (wizard/sorcerer) who is foiling the efforts of the court onmyoji Doson (Sanada Hiroyuki, Twillight Samurai) against the emperor’s newborn son and current favorite (on behalf of a former favorite… and a prince who was unjustly accused of treason a century and a half earlier). There is not much swordplay and audiences unfamiliar with Heian ways (who have not read Tale of Genji) are almost certain to be confused. There seems to me a homoerotic element in the playful/bemused hedonist and slightly fey Abe aiding the earnest and hunky Minamoto no Hiromasa (Ito Hideaki).
The phenomenon of men lost after being cut loose from jobs that was also fundamental to “Tokyo Sonata,” is only going to become more common from automation more than outsourcing (manufacturing has been returning to the US, but with far fewer jobs performed by humans): see Elizabeth Kolbert’s overview “Rage Against the Machine.”
©2010, Stephen O. Murray
I think that discussion of this movie, the only one to win a best foreign-language film Oscar (some early ones won special Oscars before the category was institutionalized is it for postings on Japanese culture. I am going to post some of my “best of” lists on the site that are not Japan-focused. Thanks to the readers of my 2016 postings!