This week Jason Julier takes a look at one of the great breakthroughs of Japanese cinema from recent years, Yōjirō Takita’s academy-award winning Departures.

Through Eastern Premise, Hope Lies has shown what a rich tapestry of cinema the Far East, particularly Japan possesses. Lately Eastern Premise has highlighted overlooked classics, the wonderfully obscure and the plain weird. Now, this week it’s time for a film that won the 2009 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, received 10 domestic Academy Awards and in 2011 was included in Roger Ebert’s ‘Great Movies’. Each is a remarkable feat for a film about the Japanese art of the nokanshi, or encoffineer. 

Okuribito, or Departures, was released in 2008 to much acclaim from director Yojiro Takita and is based on a debut screenplay from Kundo Koyama. Takita has a colourful background when it comes to directing, having initially forged his career in the genre of the Pink film in the early 80’s. These most notably included the sex comedy series Chikan densha; more provokingly known as Molester Train. Entries under this series include Underwear Inspection, Momoe’s Butt, Keiko’s Hips and Underwear Ticket Check. Eastern Premise has not had the ‘pleasure’ of seeing this series but according to Jasper Sharp’s excellent and definitive book, Behind the Pink Curtain, they are a potent mix of Benny Hill slapstick with a new level of political incorrectness; another addition then to the ‘must see’ Eastern Premise hit list. 

By the mid-80’s Takita had begun to make inroads into mainstream cinema after directing several generic Pink films such as Daylight Ripper and Tightly Bound. During this phase of his career he tackled wide-ranging topics such as materialism (The Yen Family, The Exam) and the daily interactions within a Japanese hospital with Let’s Go to the Hospital before focusing on jidi-geki, or period drama films. Departures resurrected his career and brought domestic and international recognition for which in the ‘Making of ’ he seems thankful for.         

Death might be a common occurrence in the realm of cinema but films about funerals are a rarity, as it is often seen as a taboo subject. A film about the Japanese art of Nokanshi would be a hard sell to a potential financier or perspective punters heading to the cinema or browsing for a DVD rental.  So let Eastern Premise put this into perspective; if we were recommending Japanese films from the last 5 years to anyone, then Departures would be in our top 5. It is an emotional tour de force and for once a worthy recipient of those awards. 

So the first question for most would be what is nokanshi? To use a more well-known comparison, it is a ceremony with strictly orchestrated manoeuvres and principles similar to the tea ceremony. Heavily regimented, the practitioner is a professional who visits the home of the deceased and prepares the body for placement into the coffin, its subsequent display, before being cremated. The deceased is treated with the upmost of respect, in what is quite often an emotionally charged atmosphere, with the family looking on. The nokanshi makes sure the deceased is ready for their journey. 

Daigo is the central character and is a professional cellist by trade, played Masahiro Matoki, who learned both to play the cello for this role and the art of nokanshi. His performance anchors the film with an excellent cast including Tsutomu Yamazaki as his future boss. With the provincial orchestra facing financial ruin, Daigo makes the difficult decision of selling his expensive cello and heading back to his vacant family home with his wife, Mika in agreement. This young couple like many have the weight of financial debt on their shoulders. While we are not granted much insight into Mika, the couple have a strong chemistry that will be challenged in the months ahead.

There are no job opportunities for a cellist in rural Yamagata Prefecture, where much of Departures was filmed on location. Even re-opening the family coffee shop, which seems frozen in time and is full of sad memories for Daigo, is not an option. Answering a vague local job advertisement asking for ‘assisting departures’, Daigo wrongly assumes the vacancy is for a travel agent and is racked with the same stigmata’s and preconceptions about the dead that Mika also harbours. Initially he keeps such details from his wife and as most husbands will know, soon enough the truth will be discovered no matter what!

A foolish move, with its own ramifications aside, Daigo brings the discipline of his musical training to the role. Feeling immense pride in his work and the happiness he can bring to the watchful families, he endeavours to vanquish the repulsion and disdain that many have for his chosen profession. Remarkably, Masahiro observed the work of Asami Okuyama who also experienced a similar response including those of her parents. It was not until they had seen Departures that they revaluated their daughter’s chosen profession, overcame their disapproval and were able to speak openly and proudly of what Asami did for a living. And what a difficult job it must be; the telephone can ring at any moment as death is not bound by office hours nor offers up the deceased in a uniform manner. The nokanshi must expect the unexpected and using their skill, make the deceased presentable.

The much lauded Tree of Life from Terrence Malick deals with the birth and death of the universe, whereas Departures brings the focus to the human cycle of life and death, with the spotlight on the final stages. Yet it offers more than just death, this is a journey through human life and all of its emotions. From financial hardship to our need to prejudge, it is a voyage of discovery for Daigo and Maki as they end one existence and begin another. Reborn, they can now look ahead to their life together with new found appreciation. 

Departures received a UK release from Arrow Films on both DVD and Blu Ray. The film has our highest recommendation and comes with a by-the-numbers ‘Making of Documentary’ and a short Encoffinment. A film about those that perform this taxing and underappreciated role would make for a marvellous documentary. In the meantime we have this emotional and astonishing journey in the form of Departures.