By now almost everyone would have heard of this Japanese film Okuribito (Departures), given its win in the recent Academy Awards, clinching the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, beating the likes of crowd favourite Waltzing With Bashir, and the Palme D'or winner The Class. And now after watching it, it's no surprise really, because if I were to go tongue in cheek, it's the novelty factor, given that the Academy would never have conceived upon the notion that a film coming from Asia and filled with death, corpses and coffins, would be anything but a horror film. Seriously though, Departures have Awards written all over it, with fine acting complementing a strong story to tell.
I suppose the equivalent of a “casketer” in local context, would be the embalmer. And it's without a doubt a profession most misunderstood, and shunned because of our innate fear of death. We choose to avoid death where it had gone, and being an embalmer would unlikely be on any kid's wish list of professions. Despite the stereotypical negative connotations, it is a profession that is quite dignified, because the professional is entrusted with the responsibility of helping the loved ones of the deceased cope with the passing on, and to help ease the pain in bringing some colour before the final journey to either the burial ground, or crematorium.
Departures demystifies this profession in the Japanese context. And like all things Japanese, the process comes with an elaborate ritual of preparation, cleansing and presentation, all done with great precision, skilful grace and utmost respect for both the deceased, and the family members. The profession depicted here in the film, is one of the highest order, where we see exactly how the casketers go about their job, and the separation of duties with the undertaker.
Masahiro Motoki (last seen in The Longest Night in Shanghai) stars as the lead protagonist Daigo Kobayashi, a cellist in an orchestra who dreams of going places around the world with his wife Mika (Ryoko Hirosue) in tow. Unfortunately for him, his orchestra folds and he is forced to sell his expensive white elephant since he doubts he could make his passion into a successful career. Dejected, he convinces his wife to retreat back into the small town he came from, living in the house his late mother had left behind, in order to start a new life. Little did he know when responding to a job classifieds that a typo had given him the impression he would be in a career that involves travel. The boss of the shop Ikuei Sasaki (Tsutomu Yamazaki) hires him on instinct, and as the saying goes, the rest is history.
For the curious, the film is an excellent medium to showcase the profession and to do so in good light. We come to learn the craft behind the job, and the necessity of it all, be it dealing with grieving family members, or taking care of bodies that are bound for autopsies. Departures paints through Daigo's experience, the varying spectrum of emotions that one as a service provider would have to face, as we journey with him from novice level. All's not doom and gloom of course, as director Yujiro Takita paced the film with well meaning humour – again never slapstick or disrespectful – throughout the narrative.
The story by Kundo Koyama also excellently portrayed Daigo's relationships with his wife and with his mentor, where the former was like a rubber band waiting to snap because of Daigo's deliberate attempts to not tell his lovely wife what he's up to for a career in order to shield her from the taboo. With the latter from whom he picks up the tools of the trade from, there's a surrogate father figure which he never had while growing up, resulting in some pent up hatred toward his dad who walked out on the family when he was young.
It's an extremely moving piece of drama that doesn't get bogged down by melodrama, and I thoroughly enjoyed its themes of reconciliation, forgiveness and best of all, being a professional and serving with pride. It's a fantastically crafted film with an excellent cast all round, and shatters all taboos that come with the profession of a “casketer”. I know it's cliché to say this, but Departures will be a strong contender when I compile my list of top films for the year. It's been some time already where I'm equally entertained and moved by a film, and without a doubt, do not let this depart from our local cinemas before you get a chance to watch it on the big screen. Highly recommended!