Wednesday, 26 October 2011
This film offers a privileged invitation into the world, values and practices of the Japanese people surrounding the preparation of a body for cremation. You should take your shoes off when you watch this film because you will feel like you are standing on sacred ground. The way the story is told and enacted conveys a real depth of meaning that honours the life of the deceased and treasures the opportunity to help them make the transition to the world that lies beyond. It's also a charming love story and at times has surprising bits of comedy (which I could have done without).
Daigo (Masahiro Motoki) has worked hard all his life to become a concert cellist. When his orchestra is disbanded because few buy tickets to hear them, he resolves to return to his family home and the house his mother left him when she died two year earlier. His wife Mika (Ryoko Hirosue) dutifully accompanies him and makes the house into their home. Daigo responds to a job ad in the paper thinking it to be for work at a travel agency - departures. It turns out to be a job as an assistant to Mr Sasaki (Tsutomu Yamazaki) working as a Nokanshi or coffineer. He gets the job and is hired immediately - the pay is good. He decides not to tell Mika exactly what he does.
The film explores many themes related to death and the taboos that surround dealing with the dead. As Daigo gets more and more into the role he appears to develop a sense of vocation for assisting the grieving families and honouring the deceased. He is very good at it and his face always displays an appropriately empathetic expression.
When Mika discovers what he does, she returns to Tokyo. Some of the locals including an old school friend also begin to give him the cold shoulder. A theme that runs throughout the story is Daigo's estrangement from his Father, who walked out on the family when he was 6 and how that affects him more than 25 years later.
The narrative arc feels very western and I wonder if the film loses something because it tries to appeal to western sensibilities rather than purely allowing us an insight into contemporary Shinto practice relating to preparing the dead for cremation. Daigo facilitates for each family a process that helps them in their grief and mourning. As a priest I have conducted many funerals and for me the film evokes very similar feelings to those I experience on the journey which the priest accompanies families on as they bury their dead.
This is a warm and generous film which as well as being instructional and engaging will leave you with warm fuzzies. I commend it and give it 8/10.