Okuribito - "Departures" in international release - won the 2009 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. You don't really need my belated commentary (the film only came to Brussels in December 2009) - IMDB has close to 100 links to worldwide blog and newspaper and magazine reviews. But the film is so good, and its effect so profound, that I can't refrain from enthusing.
"The Gift of Last Memories" is the line that appears on the posters for the US release, and that about sums it up. This is not a film about (a) morticians or (b) cellists. Well, not only about "coffiners," a uniquely Japanese institution whose job is to prepare the dead before placement in coffins and eventual cremation.
What Departures is really about is Love. What it means to stick with someone when their lifelong dream of fame as a concert cellist go the way of the industrial closures rampant throughout Japan. The love for people who have been part of your life, and who then are suddenly gone. The love that some people come to have for their chosen occupation, and who approach it as an art.
One of the advantages of the vagaries of international distribution is that this film was released here in time for Christmas. While Departures isn't a "Christmas movie," it does feature Christmas in Japan, and it is White. But the feel - despite the subject matter - is definitely one for the Christmas season. There is humor, but mostly at the outset, as we are brought into the singular world of the coffiners.
There are several vignettes, where the focus is on the families of the deceased, as we come to appreciate the young apprentice's growing mastery of his trade. The country that has given us kabuki theater and Benihana ("Now Playing") was bound to approach death with a certain amount of stylization. But you ain't been to a funeral 'til you've been to a Japanese "coffining."
In the West, we tend to be increasingly separated from such rites of passage. Like the old, the dead are often invisible. Families divide into open casket versus closed coffin camps, and the "undertaker" is viewed with the same distance or even disdain as shown by the uninformed Japanese in Departures. Until Death comes close to home. Which is does to all of us. As we watched Departures in our comfortable cinema seats, one elderly member of our family passed away...
But rather than shut it out of our minds, embrace Death with a flourish, like our coffiners. Watching Departures, I even considered a Japanese-style departure in my will. As one of the admiring relatives says in the film, "she never looked so beautiful." What a way to go.