okuribito

A Japanese friend of mine recently recommended Okuribito (Departures) saying what a beautiful film it was. I recalled hearing about it earlier this year and was vaguely aware that the film was about undertakers and funerals. I wasn’t particularly interested in watching something depressing but her comments and the cast list (I have a soft spot for Tsutomu Yamazaki) swayed me into watching it a few nights ago to relieve a particularly stressful day. And boy was I glad I did. It was surprisingly funny, sad, warm and big-hearted and each actor gave their utmost in rendering trully incredible performances. I laughed and cried all the way through it. It totally deserves the Oscar it won for the Best Foreign Language Film.

One of the qualms I have about Japanese modern day cinema is that, although they are beautifully shot and the stories engaging, sometimes the editing isn’t quite right. Often the film is too long without enough action (although I like my action films, I also like slow, contemplative ones too.) However, Okuribito was just perfect (except for one scene when the protagonist is playing his cello on the side of road to signal the passing of time…)

The main character Daigo played by Masahiro Motoki was inspired. I have always known him as Mok-kun (as he was affectionately known way back in the 80s as a member of the aidoru group Shibugakitai) and I never realised what a good actor he was. His facial expressions alone could have carried the film. The supporting cast of Tsutomu Yamazaki (his boss), Ryoko Hirosue (his wife) and Kimiko Yo (his colleague) were all reassuringly familiar and understated. It is a quiet film with big themes.

The film begins with Dai returning to his home town after his dream of becoming a professional orchestral cellist is dashed. He has to deal with memories of his father who had dissapeared leaving his mother to bring him up alone. She had left him her coffeeshop/bar when she passed away a few years back but he had been abroad at the time and was unable to make it to her funeral. Dai is an isolated figure, keeping his problems to himself and unable to confide in his supportive wife. This becomes a problem when he is unable to refuse a position at the local encoffinment company and is drawn into lying about his work. Soon old prejudices regarding working with the dead start to surface especially in such a small town. How Dai deals with this and how his perspective on life, love and family changes is the central theme of this film. What you can do for the one you love is to prepare and send them off to the next world.

Although the film is about death, the director Yojiro Takita and writer Kundo Koyama leave you thinking about life.

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