Home > Film > Departures or Okuribito (2008)

Departures or Okuribito (2008)

I want to start this review of Departures or Okuribito (2008) by remembering two very different written works, both of which have remained with me for decades albeit for entirely different reasons. The first is a novel, The Loved One by Evelyn Waugh. Even after sixty years, I can remember the detail of the funeral parlor in LA where they prepare the dead for burial in the Whispering Glades, the fictionalised version of Forest Lawn. I don’t think anyone has beaten this satire on the American way of death. It’s pitilessly vicious and occasionally hilarious. What makes this book particularly relevant to this film is that it skewers the inherent dishonesty of the West in cloaking most of the events surrounding death with pointless euphemisms that deny the reality of death. The idea we should openly treat the corpses with respect has long ago disappeared as has the practice of laying out at home before being taken off for burial or cremation.


The second was a short story and, as I recall from distant memory, it was called The Sin Eater. Sadly, I can’t remember the author. It described the Welsh practice of laying out food on the chest of the deceased. A priest prayed over the food. The family then paid someone to eat it and thereby assume the sins of the deceased. This was a real practice, but caught in a beautifully atmospheric story. At least this ritual required the family and friends to visit with the departed one last time to honour his or her memory, and satisfy themselves he or she would arrive at Heaven’s Gate without sin. However you look at it, this was more useful than a wake after burial or cremation when everyone comes to eat (and drink) for quite different reasons.

Masahiro Motoki and Ryoko Hirosue find stones a good way of talking


Departures or Okuribito deals with the inherent contradiction in Japnese culture when it comes to death. It was a complete surprise to me as an outsider. Frankly, it had never occurred to me that such a ceremony would ever take place. So it requires several different layers of comment. Essentially, the ritual is that the deceased is laid out in the family home as rigor is passing. A Nokanshi then publicly undresses the body, washes and prepares it for burial, and redresses it. Men are shaved. Women receive make-up. The family and friends say good-bye and the body is then placed in the coffin, ready for transport to the crematorium.


To describe the process in such banal terms is deliberately to hide the gentle beauty of the ceremony. In some ways, the Nokanshi is dispassionate, folding and unfolding the clothing in a mannered and unflustered style. But the underlying reality are final acts of dignity and respect to the person who has died. No matter what his or her religion, he or she deserves to go through to whatever waits “on the other side” looking their best. This is the least friends and relatives can do for those who have died. It’s partly done out of affection and partly out of a sense that the family and friends who have lost a loved or valued person should always receive closure. That we might find it strange a husband willingly accepts a male Nokanshi washing his wife does not change the fact that the whole is a work of performance art. The profession has arisen from an aversion to touching the dead, it being something of a cultural reversal because, originally, the family used to wash and prepare their own dead before they were placed in the coffin. When they found it too repugnant, they paid someone else to do it for them. Consequently, a Nokanshi is viewed as something of a social pariah because of the work. He may be functionally necessary, but his profession makes him untouchable.

Tsutomu Yamazaki as the Boss with Masahiro Motoki as his young apprentice


Daigo Kobayashi (Masahiro Motoki) comes from a broken family. His father left home when he was young. He was always reasonably gifted as a cellist and, as soon as he was old enough, he left the small town and, for a while, made a living as a professional musician. But, when his orchestra can no longer pay the bills, it’s perfunctorily disbanded — ironically, immediately after performing Ode to Joy Beethoven style — and, in a somewhat depressed state, he sells his top-of-the-range cello, and retires to his home town with his young wife Mika (Ryôko Hirosue) in tow. As a result of a misprint, he’s tempted to apply for a job only to find himself immediately accepted for work as a trainee Nokanshi. The owner, Ikuei Sasaki (Tsutomu Yamazaki) uses a mixture of bribery, pleading and bullying to capture the only applicant for the job. There are some very amusing moments in the early part of the film. But, as always, there are problems brewing. The town turns against Daigo with even his best friend abandoning him. Trying to hide the terrible secret of his job from his wife only makes her discovery of the truth all the more devastating. When he will not give it up, she leaves him. This leaves three allied issues for resolution. Daigo has never really forgiven his father for leaving home. His wife was resentful at being made to leave Tokyo and feels further betrayed in her husband’s choice of new career. And then there’s the town itself.


After some months, his wife returns. She has discovered her pregnancy and comes back in the hope of persuading Daigo to leave with her. On the evening of her return, the owner of the town’s baths, Tsuyako (Kazuko Yoshiyuki) dies. She had been a pillar of the community, briefly a friend to Mika, and the mother of Daigo’s best friend. Mika attends the ritual which Daigo performs. After months of practice, he has mastered the art and even a sceptical Mika is moved by what she sees. Daigo has always been a performer albeit he’s finally stopped hiding as one of many in the orchestra. Now she sees a true professional. Even without a musical instrument, he can still “sell” a performance to an audience. His best friend is also more forgiving. When his own father dies, Daigo performs the ritual for himself as the sole grieving family member. Through this, he finds some reconciliation in his heart, particularly when he finds a small, smooth stone in his father’s dead hand.


Although this is, in many ways, an ensemble piece, it’s the performance of Masahiro Motoki that holds it altogether. Daigo has always been an introvert, holding his emotions inside. This has made him an indifferent husband, the marriage being held together rather more by Ryôko Hirosue’s love for him. Overcoming the bitterness he feels towards his father for abandoning them and achieving peace of mind through both music and work, is elegantly choreographed by director Yôjirô Takita, working from a script by Kundô Koyama. It’s a journey of redemption, at times sad, then humourous and finally modestly triumphant. In a sense, he heals his relationships with the living through his ability to treat the dead with such reverent respect.


Let’s conclude with a simple question: what’s the point of a ritual? In a way, the tradition behind the activity gives it meaning, in this case, as a way of showing reverence. It shows deep respect and is one of the possible ways in which we, as a group or society, may say something profound through practical engagement — by providing a gateway through which the dead may pass into whatever awaits them while the onlookers say a proper farewell. Overall, Departures or Okuribito is a remarkably moving film and it’s no surprise that it won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film 2009 and divers prizes as best film with the best performance by Masahiro Motoki in festivals and awards around the world. You should make every effort to see it.


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