Okuribito (Yojiro Takita, 2008)
Okuribito, released in English-speaking countries as Departures, was Japan’s entry for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 2008; one cannot call its win a surprise in any way. This is, for about one hundred fifteen minutes of its one hundred thirty minute length, an impeccable film in every way, sincere and heartfelt and warm and funny and entirely in love with the world. And while the last fifteen minutes don’t quite live up to the first bit, they’re still good enough to warrant calling this one of the best movies to come out of Japan—or, for that matter, any country—in the past decade.
Plot: Daigo Kobayashi (The Bird People in China‘s Masahiro Motoki) is a cellist in a struggling Tokyo orchestra…which folds just after Daigo basically mortgages his life away financing a new cello. Desperate for money to pay off the debt and unable to make rent on his Tokyo apartment anymore, Daigo and his wife Mika (Hana and Alice‘s Ryôko Hirosue) move to Daigo’s ancestral small-town home, which his mother left to him after her death. Perusing the local paper, Daigo finds, and answers, an ad for a company called Departures, assuming they’re a travel agency. Instead, he finds, they are “encoffineers”, a sort of mortician whose job is to prepare the recently deceased for burial. It’s a low-caste job, universally reviled, but when Daigo hears the salary, he takes the plunge while putting up a front to his wife that he’s actually the travel agent he thought he would be when he left home that morning. He’s not too sure about the job at first, but over time, he comes to love the work, giving the dead the same passion he gave the cello—but what will happen when his wife finds out what he’s doing for a living?
The end of the film dives straight into Hollywood shameless-emotional-manipulatgion territory; the film sets up a somewhat artificial “Daigo comes to terms with his childhood” scenario, and then executes it (albeit flawlessly). By that point, however, I was more than willing to give this movie a pass in just about any way necessary; it had already done everything I expect of a great film, and had done it all with honesty, integrity, and grace. Hard to believe he got his start in pinky film (he directed multiple films in both the Molester Train and Groper Train series), but there ya go. He’s come a long way, baby. **** ½