Lit React ~ Analysis & reactions on works of fiction.

14 Oct 2011

(2008 Movie) Departures (Okuribito) directed by: Yojiro Takita

(Reaction) Death, Redemption and a bit of Lip Gloss by: Jose Angelo Singson

The Japanese film Departures won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film for this year. The film tracks the emotional journey of discovery and self-awareness for failed cellist, Daigo Kobayashi (Masahiro Motoki) and his wife Mika (Ryoko Hirosue).

Apparently encoffinment is a line of work long reviled in Japanese culture for its association with the dead. It isn't explicitly mentioned in the film but the Japanese audience would recognize it as a job for burakumin. Burakumin are a Japanese social minority group. They are one of the main minority groups in Japan, along with the Ainu of Hokkaido or aboriginal Japanese. The Ryukyuans of Okinawa, who are mostly of Chinese ancestry and possess a culture of their own which is neither Chinese nor Japanese, and Japanese residents of Korean ancestry, mostly coming from war refugees.

These so-called burakumin are descendants of pariah communities of the feudal era. These communities were mainly formed from people with occupations considered "contaminated" by constant exposure to death or ritual impurity by Shinto standards. Executioners, undertakers, abattoir workers, butchers and leather workers were all lumped together as burakumin and traditionally lived apart from the rest of feudal society in their own secluded hamlets and ghettos.

Interestingly the burakumin were only legally liberated in 1871 with the abolition of the feudal caste system. However, this did little to stop the social discrimination they suffered. In fact this sense of discrimination was so strong that according to a survey conducted by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government in 2003, 4.9% of respondents would still actively avoid a burakumin neighbor.

Although not of burakumin descent, Daigo is not spared from the social stigma of having become an encoffiner. This explains why takes such great pains to hide his new profession from everyone, including his wife, who goes as far as to leave him when she learns the true nature of his work. Death, as it is in many different cultures, is a subject of great ceremony as portrayed in this movie. Be that as it may, it is also a strongly taboo subject in Japan and is never talked about in polite circles. The director in fact openly expressed his fears that the movie wouldn't be received well, especially by the Japanese audience.

The film is very skillfully written through and the characters play out the underlying theme of discrimination without diluting the other theme of self-discovery and reconciliation. After a few months Mika returns, announcing that she is pregnant, assuming that this news will spur Daigo to get a different job. While Daigo and Mika try to settle their differences, the telephone rings. They are greeted with bad news: Tsuyako, Yamashita's mother and proprietress of the public bath and impromptu social center of their tiny town, has died.

Daigo is called to prepare her body for cremation in front of Yamashita, his family and Mika. Daigo carries out the ritual with great reverence and earns the respect of all present. During cremation, Tsuyako's friend, the local eccentric and loyal bath house patron, appears as the cremator. He goes on to monologue that death is not the "end" but the "gate to a next stage." After the cremation, Daigo goes to the river and finds a small stone to give to Mika. Puzzled by this he then proceeds to her about "stone-letters", a story told to him by his father revealing his own pained and estranged relationship with his father.

Things go well for a bit now that Daigo has merited Mika's trust. While attending to some chores Mika receives a document saying that the elder Kobayashi, Daigo's father, has recently died. Naturally he refuses to see him, but Daigo's coworker convinces him to go by confessing that she herself abandoned her son in Hokkaido when he was only six. Sasaki, his eccentric but kindly boss, invites him to take one of their fancier display coffins as a token of respect and fatherly regard. Daigo and Mika go to see the body of his father, but tragically Daigo discovers that he can no longer recognize his own father's face.

As he struggles to process his emotions, the funeral workers sent in by the local government office come in and literally manhandle his father's remains. Daigo angrily stops them, and Mika calmly explains that her husband is a professional. Interestingly, she only mentions the word, professional but not professional encoffiner to the brutish funeral workers.

Daigo goes about handling the dressing of the body when the stone-letter he had given to his father as a young boy drops out from his father's tightly clasped hands. Memories repressed by his anger at his father for having abandoned him and his mother are released and he at last recognizes his father. As he tearfully finishes the ceremony, Daigo gently presses the stone-letter to Mika's pregnant belly and the film ends with both characters smiling, leaving the audience with an overall feel that most of the emotional hurdles initially introduced in the film have now been leapt over.

The film, although discussing the very somber matter of death and the rituals that surround it, is not at all depressing. This does not mean that there are no moving scenes here. Quite the contrary, there are a number of genuine tear-jerking moments in the movie but when all is said and done these moments of genuine sadness are then proceeded by some form of redemption. Such as when the main character begins to feel at ease with his new work and he begins to see that encoffinment is a noble task, literally making the corpse look dignified so that it may be presented to the grieving members of the family one last time for a proper farewell before cremating the body.

It is as though the act of encoffinment or rather the result of a well done encoffinment is the catalyst for family to come to grips with the death of a loved one an thus be able to enjoy a cathartic release of pent-up grief or even happy emotions shared with the loved one before they passed on. Remarkably, the act of encoffinment seems to transcend socio-theological boundaries as well. The film shows Daigo and his boss carrying out an encoffinment ritual for a Catholic family as well.


The film is inspired by Japanese author Shinmon Aoki's mortician memoir "Coffinman." Some of the film's most memorable moments show the fastidious, stylized and almost reverent casketing of bodies.

The movie is, as I mentioned, quite lighthearted despite its focus upon death. It is a highly enjoyable movie but as with any Japanese movie, be prepared for glacial pacing of the storytelling as well as the general emotional awkwardness of the main characters. It has been said that the Japanese are a generally tightlipped, reserved people but the way these characters, especially the husband and wife team of Daigo and Mika, beat around issues...well, let's just say that there are a lot of moments where you literally want to scream at them and say just spit it out already!!!

I would actually use the word performed in describing the process of encoffinment depicted in the movie because that precisely the word to describe it: the ritual is conducted in full sight of family members in various stages of grief. The complex procedure involves an almost ritualized washing, meticulous grooming and careful disrobing and clothing once more of the recently deceased; all done while exposing a minimum of skin to preserve the dignity of the departed.

No mean task considering that all this is done while kneeling in seiza, or legs neatly folded under one's body, with an unwilling participant, i.e. the recently deceased and under the complete scrutiny of those left behind who other than grief stricken are also most likely to be dealing with a handful of other matters that accompany a person who has just died.

Overall I would say that the film did deserve to win the Oscar. It was a good story and the execution was well done. I liked the fact that the movie ended with an actual resolution as well as character development. The casting director's choice of artists for the character roles was well selected, each able to play their parts well enough without the tendency to exaggerate expressions that one has come to expect from Japanese films.

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