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Written by Funn Lim


"Who says death is an easy subject?"


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SPOILERS ... SPOILERS ... SPOILERS


Original Title
Okuribito

Trivia
The Japanese title "Okuribito" means "the sending [away/off] people" (as in: people who send) - but this word is not normally used in Japanese -thanks to IMDB.com

And I went about calling it Burito, Okuburito, Okawhatisthatito, Okuisthatito, Okuwhatdidyousaoto... anything but Okuribito.

Released in
2008

Interesting Fact
Japan's contender AND WINNER for the 2009 foreign language Oscar. Its win was unexpected and I think the director actually said thank you to Mr Roboto. A deserving win over those depressing war time or torture films. This is of course a movie about death which is depressing also.

Cast-Character
Masahiro Motoki ... Daigo Kobayashi
Tsutomu Yamazaki ... Ikuei Sasaki
Ryoko Hirosue ... Mika Kobayashi
Kazuko Yoshiyuki ... Tsuyako Yamashita
Kimiko Yo ... Yuriko Kamimura
Takashi Sasano ... Shokichi Hirata

Plot
Taken from IMDB.com

Daigo Kobayashi is a devoted cellist in an orchestra that has just been dissolved and 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. He answers a classified ad entitled "Departures" thinking it is an advertisement for a travel agency only to discover that the job is actually for a "Nokanshi" or "encoffineer," a funeral professional who prepares deceased bodies for burial and entry into the next life. While his wife and others despise the job, Daigo takes a certain 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.

Comments
I don't think I can summarize the plot of this movie than the one I found in IMDB.com. Of course it didn't mention that Daigo hates his father who left his mother and himself when he was very little whilst his mother died when he was overseas, so he never really encountered death first hand. It is a crucial plot because Daigo could not remember his father's face, has fond memories of his father and yet hated his father for being a deserter, a bad husband to his long suffering mother. In the end he sees Sasaki, the owner of NK Agency (that is the chief encoffineer who trained him) as his father figure and learned more from this man about life and death than he did with his father, with a shattering realisation in the end of the movie that made him remember his father's face.

To say that this movie is all bang bang and action packed is of course a lie. It is in the end a slow moving artistic movie but not quite as slow and sometimes depressingly pointless that we see independent movie makers make, more notably those from Malaysia or that of Wong Kar Wai, who will take 3 hours to make a point that never materialise because nobody could understand him. This movie is easy enough to follow but the points made are both beautiful and sometimes sad.

Who says death is an easy subject? Remember Life Is Beautiful? Who would have thought a nazi concentration camp be the subject of a comedy with a sad but beautiful ending? So is this movie. Death is often a frightening subject to many since who knows what happens after death and to some who experience it looking at their loved ones, death can be painful, sad and sometime life changing experience, for the better or for the worse. I have frankly never heard of the word encoffineer, I am sure maybe morticians and such are similar but in Japan where everything is steeped in tradition, even just a tea drinking session will become a ceremony, I am not puzzled nor surprised that such a job function exists. An encoffineer as explained in this movie not only just prepares the dead for burial or what's the better word for burning? I can't remember at this moment. Their job is to bath the body, dress them, apply makeup, put them in coffin, all but close the lid and burn it. All in front of the family members. It was explained that this used to be done by the family members but now the family would prefer a professional encoffineer to do it. As Sasaki shows Daigo in his very first encoffineer job (for lack of better word to use), it is also a ritual to regain the dignity of the dead and a final farewell for the family to the dead, some sort of a goodbye ritual, a finality of all finality, as death may not be the finality of it all. Sometimes Daigo sees quarrels, parents blaming parents, happy times as grandchildren remembering their grandparents' favourite socks or tragic tears with regards to early death of children or sick spouses. All these are sensitive issues and it was up to Daigo and Sasaki to weather the pain and suffering in total silence. A job well done is when a relative rushes up and tearfully say thank you. It could be from the way the ritual was done or a simple way of putting on make up on the body making the body look like a sleeping person, as if frozen in time and death.

Daigo and Sasaki also works closely with the funeral parlour (probably those arranging the funeral ceremony, coffin, etc) to pick up dead bodies. And in the end it is also shown the bodies of those without family will be callously and without much respect thrown into a simple coffin and be done with. There is no sensitivity involved and only then I realised how important an encoffineer's job is because each body, wanted or unwanted were once somebody's parent or spouse or child or sibling, living, breathing human being.

Interestingly there is stigma involved. I would have thought such a specialised field like being an encoffineer is a respected profession, after all they provide the final dignity to the dead. But this movie frankly shows Daigo was ostracised by even his own young wife, Mika who left him when he refused to leave his job and even his childhood friend who avoided him, even scolded him for being close until of course a tragedy happened that made both Mika and that friend realised how important and dignified Daigo's job was. Even Daigo was supersitious, and wanted to quit many times but lured back by good money, or rather the lack of jobs out there and in the end the respect he has for Sasaki, that he decided to stay despite his wife's objections. Why would Daigo have such a newfound love for this job? He was after all a cellist in an ill fated ochestra that closed not long after he joined. In fact he has all his life tried very hard to be a good cellist, he wasn't bad but he finally accepted the fact in the beginning maybe being a cellist isn't the job for him. He wanted to become a cellist because when he was little his father (who was faceless since he can't remember) was a big fan of classical music, thus was a man of refined taste. He often played the cello in front of his parents and so he grew up wanting to be a cellist eventhough it took him a long time to get into an ochestra. His wife was supportive of his decision to move back to his hometown, not a very small place and into his dead mother's house. He found an ad from NK Agency looking for someone to deal with departures, thinking it was a travel agency he answered the ad only to be pushed into the job by a very determined Sasaki. Along the way I have this feeling that perhaps an encoffineer is a job for the old, because Sasaki and many others often said Daigo is the youngest encoffineer they have seen. It was like let the old handle the dead and the young do something else! Daigo has no appreciation for the gravity of his job nor what it has on his life until he observed Sasaki in his office which is full of green plants and Sasaki often ate well, lived well and of course earned well. Sasaki became an encoffineer when he himself buried his own dead wife several years ago and found his true calling, and Daigo too found his. Through Sasaki, Daigo actually have a newfound respect for death and a newfound thirst for life, he began to eat well and enjoy his food, he began to see life in a whole new way.

I really enjoyed that part where he bonded with Sasaki and how Sasaki handled his reluctance. There are indeed many comedic moments right towards to almost at the end and I feel even some funeral moments were handled well despite the comedic moments.

The ending was poignant. Daigo received a telegram that his father has died and the letter asked for his mother to pick up his body. Of course his mother was dead. He refused to go, since his father abandoned him, he refused to do the final rites. But the office lady whose name I forgot whom he had bonded well with her over his time at the office begged him to. She reasoned she too had an affair, left her son and was now too ashamed to go home to her son. Daigo didn't understand if his father died alone (his father was having an affair with a waitress at his mother's small cafe shop 3 decades ago), why didn't he come home? In the end he went to his father's body, his father spent his life working as a workman living in small quarters, lived alone, died alone holding a piece of pebble that he once gave his father and he realised his father was too ashamed to go home even if his mother waited for him her whole life. He suddenly could put his face into his memories of his father and he cried for the lost years and he prepared his father for the final journey, restoring his father's dignity as his wife looked on. In fact his wife didn't want him to go back to being an encoffineer until she witnessed first hand earlier how he prepared a lady who ran a bath house that she also knew that she understood there is nothing dirty with her husband's job. She came back earlier because she was pregnant by the way.

Whilst I will not question the story nor the presentation of the story as the cinematography and music are excellent, I was very confused with the timeline, mainly because the subtitles were conflicting. One said he was in the job for 2 years (meaning he lied to his wife for 2 years, which is impossible) and one said he was in the job for 2 weeks (even more impossible). I was very confused what is the timeline in the movie, how long before Sasaki let him handle the cases alone. There are also a moment in the movie that makes you go "seriously?" like the way Daigo celebrated life by playing his cello beside a rice "padi" field, surrounded by greens (aka life) and appreciating the natural wonders of the world as the camera goes circling around him many times. A bit over the top in my opinion but yes, I got the point, many times over. It is also rather predictable, as in the bath house lady will die, his wife will come back because of that, he will get acceptance. It was almost given that would be the catalyst to his relationship with everybody. What surprised me pleasantly was I actually thought Sasaki will die and Daigo would become his encoffineer but no, that goes for his father and like I said, a rather poignant ending. I also sat with certain apprehension that each body is being encoffined so to speak in the same way, massaging the hands, face, body, cleaning every part, etc. Even between a man and a woman. I was wondering what about accident victims? Murder victims? Bloated bodies? You don't see such bodies in here, except for one who died for many days before she was discovered as Daigo vomitted Sasaki scolded him to quickly take the body. Whatever the circumstances, the dead must be treated respectfully. Is such a ritual still an important part of Japanese culture? How then do they handle bodies that aren't that pleasant looking, like murder victims? This movie doesn't show you beyond the encoffining (is there such a word?) process and straight to burning. In between I am sure there are rituals at temples, etc. One scene showed Sasaki and Daigo attending ceremonies of all faiths which is funny and yet realistic; they all do need an encoffineer in the end since death is death.

While the stories may confuse you sometimes, and you may question certain aspect, what is unquestionable is the performances by the lead actor and his mentor in the movie.

Masahiro Motoki, someone I haven't seen before was a revelation as a comedic actor and a serious dramatic actor. His bumbling attempts during the job and how in the end he began to respect his work and love it were fantastic to watch. Except for my confusion over the timeline, his progression is believable and lovable. I really like Daigo who despite his wife's objections and leaving him, he steadfastly pursued this line of work. He does have that cute moments and his sad moments are equally as effective. His chemistry with the actor who plays his mentor is simply fantastic.

Tsutomu Yamazaki is funny. He is funny without making funny faces or delivering a whole lot of lines. In fact he is most silence but his every action, every grimace, every facial expression (which is limited actually) and those few lines he delivered were delivered with comic timing as and when needed and authority as and when there should be any. He is actually the comic relief and his deadpan way of acting is the highlight of this movie. If there is a scene you must not missed, it is the scene how he got Daigo to work for him and the scenes where he is eating, always saying "Delicious, sadly so".

Everybody else is standard stuff for me except for Ryoko Hirosue who plays the wife Mika really annoys me big time. Again that breathy whisper that kinda makes me want to cough but not quite whenever I listen to her talk that way, that cute look, that smiling look even when she is angry...I can't feel her and I feel her performance was the dark point of this movie.

But other than that, I can't think of anything bad to say.

Oh yes, one more thing. Why is it every house I see in a Japanese movie or TV series, especially movies is so depressing looking and colourless? I was watching Suspect X and the apartments are like boxes, but that is in the city but in the countryside, even a 2 storey hours is so depressing looking. Just reminds me of Ju On you know, small, dark, depressing and looks haunted. No bungalows? I know space is gold in Japan but colourful apartments perhaps?

And seriously, nothing bad to say other than that.

Did I mention the soundtrack? Excellent stuff.

Verdict
A must watch. This is a movie that deservedly won the Oscars and to be is one of the best movie I have ever seen, even from Japan.



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