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The first film

Note: Okuribito has been translated into English as “Departures”, though this loses some of the comic value of the title.  おくりびと、or 送り人, means someone who sees someone else off, for example at the bus station, airport, or in this case, at death’s door. Thus when the lead character applies for a job “assisting departures”, he has no idea what he’s getting into.

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Okuribito is a movie that is at times funny, moving and both. It creates likeable characters that weave in and out of a greater narrative, about the processes of death, bereavement and the unique Japanese art of ceremonial preparation for death, performed by the nokanshi, or encoffining master. The films protaganist Daigo Kobayashi is a failed cellist who, facing debts from the purchase of his musical instrument, abandons Tokyo to return to his hometown in inaka Yamagata Prefecture with his wife Mika. There he stumbles upon a well-paying job “assisting departures”. Despite inital reluctance, and the opposition of his wife to his new line of work, he gains a respect and admiration for his boss, Shoei Sasaki, and the strange, beautiful service he provides.

The movie is moving, poignant and poweful, yet also has moments of low-brow comedy. Despite the apparent opposition of these elements, they are weaved together seamlessly. The film is enriched by Joe Hisaishi’s (who has worked on Miyazaki movies) musical score, as well as rich symbolism throughout. At times it crosses over from the heartfelt into the over-dramatic, even sentimental, yet on balance it keeps to the right side of this line. A number of scenes featuring the last funeral rights really stick in the mind- a transgendered son/daughter whose parents finally accept after she is brought to life in her encoffining (this scene provides great comedy at the beginning of the movie, yet when returned to in the middle is very moving), a grief-stricken husband who shouts at the encoffiners for being late, yet afterwards thanks them for making his wife beautiful one last time. And then the final scenes- the onsen owner, and the confrontation with Daigo’s past that, yes at times is too sentimental, but still remains a powerful and satisfying ending.

Okuribito is very “Japanese”- and the fact that I haven’t seen a Japanese movie in a while made some of the scenes very nostalgic. The onsen scenes, the old man playing Shogi, and the wife Mika, welcoming Daigo home and preparing food, and being so very “Japanese” in her interactions with her husband. Yet the centre of the films attention- the Japanese ceremony of preparatino for death, performed by the nokanshi, or coffin master, was something that I was understandably unaware of.

Okuribito is a very sad movie at times, yet also incredibly positive. In dealing with the issues of age and death, it is to some extent confronting the contemporary problems of an ageing population in Japan, as well as the taboo’s over death itself. Its messages on bereavement and death, of saying goodbye, are heartfelt and sincere, and it’s well worth watching.

Steve’s Star Rating: ****

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