Japan: An Oscar to “Okuribito” (Departures)

Okuribito. By id: Prognatis.

Okuribito. By id: Prognatis.

For the first time a Japanese movie, Okuribito (or Departures), has been awarded the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, over the French “The Class” and the Israeli animated documentary “Waltz With Bashir”.

Directed by Yôjiro Takita, Okuribito is based on the novel Nôkanfû Nikki (納棺夫日記, lit. Diary of an undertaker) by Shinmon Aoki [ja] and tells the story of a young cellist who suddenly finds himself without a job and reluctantly accepts a position as an undertaker in his hometown, a small town in Yamagata Prefecture.

More a film about the meaning of life and human values than about death, it shows to the viewer both the Japanese customs in ceremonials held before and at the time of a person's funeral and also the concept of death as seen from the Buddhist viewpoint as merely a transition instead of an ending.

Takaya in the blog Cinema Novo, explains the philosophy behind the movie.


Human beings, whether they want it or not, need help at the beginning of their life as well as the ending.
When they are born they need the help of a nurse.
When they die, they depart from this world after the undertaker has purified their body.


I watched Okuribito, the movie selected as the best movie of 2008 by the magazine KineJun [ja].
This time director Yôjiro Takita, who, in light comedy movies like Byôin he ikô [病院へ行こう, Let's Go to the Hospital (1990)], greatly portrayed the paradoxes of society, has here made a close up on the job of the undertaker who is present to supervise a person's funeral.



In a scene from the movie, in front of the different coffins which may be chosen for the funeral they say: “a person's last need is decided by another person”. When we are born and when we die, in what should be the two most important moments in life, we commit our body to somebody else's hands. This is the way of the world and however you may die this truth does not change.



What is death? People would starve if other living beings didn't die and yet we detest death.
When [in another scene of the movie] the old man in charge of the crematorium at the funeral hall says “Death is a gate”, the real meaning of the undertaker’s role is shown.


“Thank you and good bye. Have a safe journey” [he says.]
A scene from the movie. By id: sinemabed.

A scene from the movie. By id: sinemabed.

Okuribito will be on the American screens in late May and though it won an Oscar, as the blogger Guroneko says quoting a Mainichi Shinbun article,

whether “Departures” will commercially be successful in the US is another matter.

Nonetheless it is worthy of note that, in Japan, it made some people reflect on the meaning of life as in the case of Suiren, who describes her feelings about the movie immediately after watching it.

Let me write about Okuribito first, because I was deeply moved by it.
I laughed a lot but cried much more than I laughed. […] What moved me so much, I wonder..?

Some people might live their lives successfully. Others might live feeling lonely or with depression. Some life might be exciting. Others might be just ordinary. Whatever, every life should be blessed.

I felt, in this movie, that one's life is treated so tenderly, so warmly, and with respect.

Despite being based on a novel, which is usually considered better than its cinematographic counterpart, the movie has been appreciated also by those who read the original story, like the blogger Zero-agency.


Usually a movie based on a novel doesn't stand comparison with the original book, however, this is not the case here. [Watching it] I thought that through the depiction of such a job, I could better understand the culture of this country. I really felt that it expressed the concept that every occupation deserves respect and it also rendered the human psychology involved in a very real way.
Besides the excellent acting of Masahiro Motoki and Kimiko Yo, the passionate performance of Tsutomu Yamazaki makes this movie even more effective.

Besides, as the job blogger You points out, the movie highlights another important question common to many so called ‘developed’ countries, the difference between those professions considered desirable and those considered less so or even shameful.


I think this is a movie that makes people reflect on the meaning of “ceremonies” and makes them think that they are really important.
They are not merely formal acts but have a deeper meaning and I believe that this is a main point made in the film.
When one friend of mine started to work as an undertaker, I remember I was shocked when I heard a mutual friend say “that's a job to do only if you don`t have any another choice!”
A doctor who looks after a person`s life until they die is praiseworthy while the job of someone who attends to their last rites is considered degraded which is weird. What I believe instead is that it's a job which should be done with pride.


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