Japn 340 Japanese Cinema: Okuribito (Departures)

There are a few things that come through to me in this film:

1. It is about the beauty and the harmony that can be found in preparing the human body for its last voyage. Mostly considered gross, polluting and unpleasant, in the hands of a master, it becomes something noble and refined. The master performs his ritual much the way a Tea Master performs the tea ceremony--with great elegance, beauty and subtle emotion. Moreover, the mind becomes empty in a Zen or Daoist fashion, the body functions with effortlessness, or "wu-wei" = "non-striving" in Chinese philsophy.

Everything is done beautifully and peacefully. "One grown cold, [is] restored to beauty for all eternity. This was done with calmness, and precision and, above all, gentle affection."

2. The companion of the mistress of the Tsuru Public Bath, who is also responsible for firing up the crematorium, observes that "Maybe death is a gateway. (mon 門) Dying doesn't mean the end. You go through it in order to get to the next thing. And as the Gatekeeper, I have sent many on their way:

"Off you go, now." (itte-irasshai) "We'll meet again." (Mata aou 又, 会おう).

The Gatekeeper pushes the green button and as the coffin starts to burn, the shot dissolves into geese lifting off in flight...

3. The "Stone Letters" (石文)

Daigo gives one to Mika, his father gave the large-ish one to him, and, in the end, his father was holding the smooth little white stone that Daigo had given him when he was still a child. It comes full-circle, back to Daigo, who gives it to Mika and when she tries to give it back to him, he folds it into her hand and together they press it against her tummy where their child resides.

4.There is also a special moment in the film when Mika watches lovingly and with admiration as Daigo prepares his father's body for its final journey. Mika has not always appreciated Daigo's new profession; in fact, initially she wanted no part of it. She demanded that he quit as did many others. But when the woman who owned the public bath--Tsuyako Yamashita--died and Mika was present as Daigo lovingly and expertly performed his solemn rituals, you could see her eyes fill with emotion; they veritably shine with pride and admiration.

She is starting to understand what this job entails, the kind of concentration, attention to detail and the care it demands, and therefore what it means to Daigo. Perhaps like an artist or a musician, the Nôkanshi (納棺師), the encoffiner, performs with beauty and grace; his whole body and being become an expression of human dignity and worth, and the service he provides is something that the families need. The ritual on "encoffining" brings healing and hope to the families who are grieving or torn asunder.

Consider the first case of Tomeo who is transgendered. His father could not accept this in life but the beauty that Mr. Sasaki brings out in death helps him reconcile and accept his son for what he was. Healing and reconciliation are always emotionally powerful.

Daigo also comes from a broken family; his father abandoned him and his mother when he was only six. He tells Mika that he can no longer remember his father's face. He hates his father and holds him in contempt.

When he comes to attend to his father's corpse later on, and when it becomes apparent that the undertakers are complete bumblers, Daigo takes over the preparation part. They are stunned but Mika explains "My husband is a nôkanshi (Otto wa nôkanshi nanda--夫は 納棺し なんだ)," i.e., an encoffiner. The subtitles actually render this sentence as "My husband is a professional," which is fine; it says a lot, too. But it may not convey as effectively as the original Japanese how difficult it was for Mika to get to that point where she actually could utter that word, nôkanshi (the "NK" of NK Agents), with pride, and say to the world that this is what her husband does--and that he is good at it. It was a long distance for Mika to traverse.

But, as we saw, she first began to see this side of Daigo and the rituals he performs, when he prepared the body of Tsuyako, the lady who ran the sentô or public bath, for her final journey--the calmness, the beauty, the affection that he manifested--and we can see it in her eyes that she gets it. And for Daigo, too, the nôkan ritual is powerful because his hatred for his father is transformed into love. This is, indeed, the power of ritual, of elegant, precise, calm and beautiful movements that prepare the dead for their peaceful "departure" into the next life, the afterlife.