After winning the grand prize at the Montreal World Film Festival and the bid to become Japan’s submission to the best foreign film category in the Oscars, Okuribito (『おくりびと』, English title: Departures) is fulfilling the promises of its ad copy to become the best film of the year. A sweeping fish-out-of-water tale depicting the esoteric practices of the Japanese nōkanshi (納棺士) — an undertaker who places bodies into coffins at funeral ceremonies — the film’s warmhearted depiction of death may have appealed strongly to older audiences, who no doubt helped the film’s box-office figures surge past ¥2.7 in sales (as of Nov. 2). But while director Takita Yojiro’s Okuribito may be Shochiku’s nod to the popularity of the nostalgic weepie — previously revived by the Always: Sunset On Third Street franchise — the former can be argued to be an escapist, fantasy picture geared towards disenchanted, young Japanese urbanites. As the effects of the country’s aging population and declining birthrate manifest more sharply in Japan’s rural areas, Okuribito makes a pretty convincing case that young aspirants may want to head for the countryside in search of love, comfort, and even dignity.
Okuribito’s hero, Kobayashi Daigo (Motoki Masahiro), begins as a professional cellist, the kind of passion-over-practicality man-child that epitomizes the post-Bubble generation. His dream is shuttered when his orchestra disintegrates due to financial problems. With no way to continue living in the city, let alone pay off the substantial loan he has foolishly racked up for a cello he cannot afford, Daigo sells his beloved instrument and packs up his post in Tokyo with his wife Mika (Hirosue Ryoko). Yet what awaits them in Daigo’s home city of Sakata, Yamagata Prefecture is far from disillusionment and resentment. Daigo and Mika fall into the loving embrace of the lush Shonai plains, and neighbors welcome the arrival of the young couple, doling out comical idiosyncrasies and words of wisdom like delicate morsels of food. Although Daigo is oblivious to the real destination of the “departures” when he answers a want-ad for a “travel” agency, he ends up finding himself a life-affirming career ushering people to the afterlife.
In the film Daigo and Mika fit the mien of modern-day married couples in their late twenties to early thirties. Mika, introduced as a web designer can work from anywhere, keeps up her job in Yamagata, now punctuated by breaks in her front yard where she breathes in the fresh air wafting from the snow-capped mountains. Daigo, though seemingly bothered by a dream cut short, is emblematic of his generation in that he knows how to temper his ambition so as not to let it distract from his wish to go with the flow of life. The peculiarity of Okuribito is found in the couple’s smooth transition to the countryside — not one complaint about a lack of city-like convenience or stalled Wi-Fi installation. Plenty of films in the past have espoused the regenerative effects of small-town warmth and humility. Western films in the vein of Lonesome Jim, Elizabethtown, or Garden State often include young men defeated by big cities, whose resistance to their hometowns is slowly chiseled away until the day they are rejuvenated enough to head back. Yet Daigo and Mika are unique in their willingness to surrender and to settle. In a scene where Daigo parts with his cello in a store in Tokyo, he admits in a voice-over: “As soon as I sold off my cello, I felt as if a weight had been lifted.”
Okay, Okuribito may be a fantasy, further evidenced by the kind of environment, people, and careers the film showcases as the bounties of rural life. The home that Daigo and Mika inhabit is not an old-fashioned nagaya row house but a jazz café-turned-izakaya owned by his late mother, where choice LP records and exposed wood beams create a stylish atmosphere. During the location scout, director Takita and his crew scavenged the Yamagata prefecture for “things that will eventually pass on,” and the result is a film with strategically placed anachronisms like old bathhouses. When Daigo finds his worn, kids-size cello in the house and starts playing it against the sprawling mountainscape of Yamagata, one becomes convinced that the Joe Hisaishi’s scoring has never sounded better.
Yet the film is not without its share of conflict for its hero, and Daigo’s new profession does cause marital riffs. The job of a nōkanshi involves the washing and dressing of the deceased during a funeral, and Daigo is faced with criticisms from neighbors, who describe the job as being like a vulture. The reason behind Daigo’s resolve to remain a nōkanshi, however, exists in his relationship with his boss Sasaki. Played by the incomparable Yamazaki Tsutomu, Sasaki is a crusty gourmand with a masculine charisma and confidence in spades. He extinguishes every one of Daigo’s doubts with simple affirmations or barking orders and plays the paternal figure missing in Daigo’s life. Despite the hallowing and downright stomach-churning aspects of the profession, Daigo knows that when his artisan boss undertakes the rituals, every step transcends to a form of alchemy through which the dead are honored and the pain of the mourning family lovingly alleviated. Sasaki also represents the idealized characteristics that younger Japanese generations often look for in their elders but do not always manage to find: a steady calm and resolve that demonstrate a peace with life.
In Okuribito, Daigo’s chosen career as a nōkanshi makes sense. As Japan’s older generations pass away in the countryside, it is difficult to think of any other profession that binds the disparate generations so literally and gracefully. The rituals of a nōkanshi appeal to the artist in Daigo, but it does not take long for the audience to see that the profession also comes with a built-in purpose that is rare in the kinds of jobs sought out by the young educated class today. In fact, the film takes every opportunity to praise the rites of miokuri (見送り) or send-off. Though the film extols the dignity of those who send off the deceased, it remains rather mum on the topic of what the living should be actively doing before their inevitable end. There is a certain grace involved in accepting one’s fate, but the passivity of Daigo and Mika is enough to prompt one to ask if there should be something they should be fighting for, instead of merely acting as the bystander.
In one scene towards the film’s end, Daigo stares at Sasaki’s deeply creased face as he naps in his office. In a transient thought, Daigo seems to realize that one day he will be responsible for sending off his ever-reliable boss. The same can be said for the old bathhouses, and the whimsical residents of the countryside. One day rural towns to which the young can return home will cease to exist, and when and if that happens, what will the young do for the old in return for what the old has bestowed upon the young? Despite Okuribito’s honorable paean to those passing on, the film seems to go too easy on the younger generations by glossing over one crucial reality: a dignified death is never possible without a dignified life, lived to the fullest.
November 19, 2008 at 11:39 am
Nice review. Hope to see more or them from you in the future.
“a dignified death is never possible without a dignified life, lived to the fullest.”
The above seems to be a bit out of synch with the rest of your review – you seemed to be evoking a narrative in which the young characters were casting off an urban style focused life for a continuity with a spiritually richer past and a deeper understanding of the fact that it is probably warm relationships that make us happier than anything material. Isn’t Daigo becoming Sasaki and in a way, committing strongly to replacing what he is seeing pass on?
If this is the case, it is interesting that it is almost thematically identical to some of Yamazaki’s best roles – Tampopo, A Quiet Life, and Doing Time. Maybe it is something about his face.
November 19, 2008 at 2:07 pm
Right. Perhaps I did not give Daigo (or Motoki Masahiro for that matter) enough credit. But Yamazaki’s presence is indomitable in the film, and he made me wonder what exactly my generation is actively doing to replace such a figure, and all that he represents in the film. (After the recent passing of Ken Ogata, I’m in fear of the day Yamazaki leaves us.)
November 20, 2008 at 1:14 am
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November 20, 2008 at 8:22 am
I was very much looking forward to Ogata having a long “late career”. I had a feeling that he had a few more great performances in him (like the one that Nakadai gave in “Ashura no Gotoku”, for example).
“he made me wonder what exactly my generation is actively doing to replace such a figure”
I’m not sure that today’s older generation seemed that great in their 20s either – somebody who is around 70 today would have been 20ish around the time that Oshima Nagisa and Imamura Shohei were making Japanese youth look a lot more aimless than today’s kids (okay, so maybe 30 is the new 20). Giving the young a chance to grow into more than we expect (maybe I shouldn’t be writing “we” as I’m not that old yet) is a nice side of Okuribito.
November 20, 2008 at 9:50 am
This isn’t exactly my area of expertise, but aren’t the veteran actors of today those who started in the “Golden Age” of Japanese films, when films actually tried to cast talented actors and actresses and not just stick models and idols on the project? There is a very good possibility that the whole idol industry ruined films and distorted the idea of “good acting” for an entire generation.
November 20, 2008 at 10:20 am
“talented actors and actresses and not just stick models and idols on the project?”
This could refer to the late 1950s or to the present. I think that there is a problem in perception (certainly not limited to Marxy) here based on how Japanese film history is narrated – we hear most about the Kurosawas and the Ozus but there were 300 plus films being made each year through the 50s and this includes no end of Misora Hibari fluff and other pictures with tacked on idols. When they tell the story of the 2000s in Japanese film we will hear about Sen to Chihiro, Battle Royale, Kemusho no Naka and Chi to Hone, etc. with Odoru Daisosasen and the like left in the dustbin of history.
Sticking models and idols into films can actually be okay if there is a director with vision – I think that Shimoduma Monogatari and Kiraware Matsuko no Issho were very strong, for example. They are also just the kinds of Japanese films that export well if we want to look for some kind of “Japan Cool” criterion.
This was a factor back in the day as well – Ishihara Yujiro wasn’t exactly acting up a storm – he was more or less an idol – but when the great Ichikawa Kon had him in “Taiheiyo Hitoribochi” he looked like gold. Kayama Yuzo – one of the first really, really, really cheesy idols, was also fantastic with Kurosawa in Akahige and maybe even better with Naruse in Midareru.
It looked like this year was going to be pretty rotten for film but there have been some bright spots lately – Midnight Eye is talking about Tokyo Sonata being a masterpiece, for example. When the box office totals are in, the “Golden Age” (which goes up to 1960, most of the “vets” these days are the guys and gals who would have been 25-35 in the 1970s so they would be 60-70 or so today) looks a lot like today’s lists – big stupid pictures do well with some exceptions (Miyazaki Hayao is the Japanese boxoffice champ and a great filmmaker, Yamada Yoji and Beat Takeshi are also excellent and have had big hits lately).
In a way, we should just be thankful that the Japanese film industry lasted through the dark days. 15 years ago, Jurassic Park made as much as the TOP FIFTEEN Japanese films put together. These days, cheesy idols or not, Japanese films can often out gross the best of the West – and this gets people paid and means that there is money floating around for “good” projects too. This isn’t a rare thing either – it is the popcorn movies and US horror pics that make Japanese TV dramas look like Citizen Kane that pay for “There Will Be Blood”.
November 21, 2008 at 10:14 am
The performance of Motoki (ex-Shibugakitai) I think helps puts paid to the notion that sticking idols in films is what ruined Japanese movies.
November 21, 2008 at 11:15 am
Are Japanese movies really “ruined”?
November 21, 2008 at 11:59 am
Nana would have been a C with someone other than Nakashima Mika. She was a black hole that sucked everyone else’s talent into it.
January 25, 2009 at 9:30 pm
[…] nominated yesterday for an Academy Award in the “Best Foreign Film” category? Have a look at this piece on […]
February 7, 2009 at 2:55 am
[…] (Okuribito おくりびと) (a review here) Daigo Kobayashi (Masahiro Motoki) is a devoted cellist in an orchestra that has just been […]