Okuribito [Departures], the Barefoot Baklesa Review
This being the first movie review I have for 2011, the Barefoot Baklesa has found it quite fitting that he should discuss "Departures" [the irony there is so obvious it will hit you an Alanis Morisette cover].
Winner for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2009 Oscars, "Okuribito" or Departures was Japan's entry that won over a hundred or so other entries. Of course, my personal bet, Thailand's "The Love of Siam" never even made it to the top four as well as that Filipino entry -the title of which escapes me.
"Okuribito" [Departures] is a cinematic journey of a man whose dreams never came to fruition and how he was thrust upon a path that the fates somehow made him destined to take. Now, some of you might actually go, "Oh, choice that's supposed to be life-altering turns out to be the hand of fate -that's soooo Asian cliche", but I guess one has to have a certain understanding of the current zeitgeist of Japanese cinema to have an appreciation for them; and "Departures" seems to be a good movie to start with.
Kobayashi Daigo, a cello player finally lands a spot in an orchestra only to have his career as a professional musician cut short when the orchestra owner decides to disband them. Out of options, he decides to sell his newly acquired top of the line cello and asks his wife, Mika, to move to the house his late mother left him in the country hoping to start anew.
Daigo and Mika start their new life in the country just as fall gives way to winter -kind of fitting if you ask me. Looking for work, Daigo chances upon a newspaper ad for a job description that says "helping out journeys". Assuming that it was for a travel agency, Daigo applies for the job at the NK company only to realize that NK stood for NouKan which translates to "Encoffining". Just like that, the hand of fate deals him a misprint that should have said "to help with peaceful departures", he finds himself taking the job with the Boss' persuasion to give it a shot because fate might have led him there.
Now, I am about to go on here like I usually do, so be prepared:
As you watch the movie, you are drawn into this world of silent ritual that defines the act of "Encoffining". It did not seem in any way romanticized but the importance given it by the imagery presented in the film did not feel like a demonstration video or documentary but they give the act of the Encoffiner the credit and dignity it deserves. For the stigma that goes with working with the dead is the same in this culture as it is theirs [We've heard many a joke cracked about the embalmer that bathes in formalin and looks like the living dead in this country].
The job of the Encoffiner is to cleanse, dress, and put make-up on the deceased before they are encased in the coffin for cremation. They take great care in ensuring that the dignity of the dead are kept intact by not allowing the skin to show as they are cleansed and dressed in traditional robes for their final journey; a job originally done by the family of the deceased, the Encoffiner appeared as an alternative to doing it themselves in their moment of grief. And like many things done with ceremonial respect in Japan, this is one to pay attention to.
The act, or call it art of Encoffining itself throughout the film tells its own story as it is woven with Daigo's own troubles of having to deal with the stigma of being labelled "filthy", hitting close to home when his own wife leaves him after discovering the true nature of his work which he had kept from the start, feeling like he must pay for missing his mother's own funeral by experiencing funerals over and over, and bearing the baggage of having been abandoned by his father when he was a boy. Thinking about it now, Daigo seems like a game board peace that stepped on a game square that said "back to square one" midway. With the Boss Encoffiner as sensei [teacher/master] is this enigmatic character that works with the dead, he teaches Daigo a different view of death and life with his own gritty humor that the living should eat well and that the living really do have to eat off the dead. Morbid, I know...yet you gotta watch him to understand.
And if music does fuel a part of the soul, the music in this film stirs mine to such effect that as the seasons sweep to their cinematic pace, I felt some out of body experience as I just let myself take everything the movie throws my way. The movie has ways of making you shed your pre-conceptions about it. For as there is this Zen philosophical statement looming over it, it is never presented in a brutal in-your-face-lecturing-you manner but in small revelations that make you go "Aaaahhhhh..."
The thing I take from this movie as the final credits roll, is that in our immortal soul's journey, we must acquire happiness in their forms tangible and intangible, cling to them, and must give them more weight and value no matter how small or brief they may be. For in our departure, grief is inevitable, but there are many other things to celebrate in this existence and the next.