“While I thought that I was learning how to live, I have been learning how to die.” - Leonardo da Vinci
We watched a very good Japanese film at the weekend. Although it seemed interesting even just by reading the synopsis and looking at the cover of the DVD, we were a bit diffident to watch it as it dealt with a rather lugubrious theme. It came highly recommended though, having won the 2009 Best Foreign Language Film of the Year, as well as another 33 awards. When we watched it we discovered it was a curiously uplifting and even cheerful film despite the serious themes it dealt with.
It was the 2008 Yôjirô Takita film “Departures” with a screenplay by Kundô Koyama and starring Masahiro Motoki, Ryôko Hirosue, Kazuko Yoshiyuki and Tsutomu Yamazaki. At 130 minutes, this was a long film, but once one starts watching it, one does not notice time passing, which is always a good sign. The film ticked all the right boxes for us, with plot, character development, acting, cinematography, direction, music and thematic breadth all being excellently done.
The movie concerns itself with Daigo Kobayashi, who is a devoted cellist in an orchestra that has just been dissolved, and who now finds himself without a job. Daigo decides to move back to his old hometown with his wife to look for work and start over, while living in his old family home. He answers a classified advertisement entitled “Departures” thinking it is a job in a travel agency, only to discover that the job is actually for a “Nokanshi” (an encoffineer, a funeral professional who prepares corpses for burial and entry into the next life). While his wife, friends and acquaintances despise the job, Daigo takes pride in his work and begins to perfect the art of “Nokanshi”, acting as a gentle gatekeeper between life and death, between the departed and the family of the departed. The film follows his profound and sometimes comical journey with death as he uncovers the wonder, joy and meaning of life and living.
The film is complex and has several subplots, not the least of which is the relationship of parents and children, especially those parents who have left or have had to leave their children at a young age. The relationship of married couples is another theme and of course the obvious one of how we view death and what our feelings are towards the dead – dead bodies as well as well as people whom we love and have died. However, the most important theme of the movie is life – life and how we should live it. If we live life the ‘right’ way, then we have no issues with death and we are prepared suitably for its arrival.
This film is a tribute to ritual and the universal human need for it. No more perhaps needed by our psyche than at the time of death. In the film, the encoffination process is shown repeatedly, although it is the reaction of the relatives that show us the vastly different way in which people view death and the dead. Sometimes the mourners make it raucous, melancholy, embarrassing, joyful or even comic. However, the film demonstrates the quintessential Japanese culture that knows the value of theatre.
The movie helps the viewer grow through an examination of his/her own views towards death and how he/she woudl cope in situations such as those depicted. It is successful as a movie because it deals with fundamental human emotions that are universal and do not depend on specific ethnic or cultural experiences. An excellent movie, we recommend it most highly and it is an uplifting and in the end joyful film, that provides an insightful and wise view of death, and life!
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