Release: 2008-09-13 (Japan); 2009-05-29 (USA limited); 2009-12-04 (UK)
Director: Yojiro Takita
Original title: Okuribito (おくりびと)
Length: 130'
Production: Japan
Language: Japanese
MPAA rating: PG-13

Cast: Masahiro Motoki (Daigo Kobayashi), Ryoko Hirosue (Mika Kobayashi), Tsutomu Yamazaki (Mr. Sasaki, the boss), Kimiko Yo (Yuriko Uemura, the office girl), Kazuko Yoshiyuki (Tsuyako Yamashita, the bath lady)

Another Sunday night on a short journey to remind me that, as much as I love the old master, Japanese cinema did not start with Rashomon and did not end with Ran. This film earned the Academy Award for best foreign feature in 2009 as well as numerous other prizes worldwide.

It won't pay the bills

Daigo is an unemployed cellist after his orchestra is disbanded. He decides that he is not really good enough for the big time and returns with his wife Mika to his hometown of Sakata, in out-of-the-way north-western Honshu. This place has the sort of beautiful scenery that one can fall in love with from a postcard. Seeking work, he answers a newspaper ad promising good pay for a man with no experience in the business of "departures." Thinking it might be a travel agency, he shows up and is offered a mythical wage before the interview is half through. Only then does he have it clarified that the business is not involved in the sort of "departures" he had in mind.

Meanwhile he and his wife are settling into small-town life as the residents of the house in which Daigo's late mother raised him by herself. Part of the house used to be a coffee shop before Kobayashi Sr. ran off with a waitress so it's not only full of memories but also not your typical Japanese dwelling. Daigo's other connection to the past is the old bath house run by an old lady who remembers him as a friend of her son.

Death is not the end

Shinto has certain ideas about purity and impurity, in a practical as well as a ritual sense. While the dead aren't really dead until they've been sent off properly, handling the dead-not-dead is of very much questionable cleanliness and Shinto is happy to wash its hands of it and hand things over to the Buddhist element of Japanese spirituality.

Daigo's new boss is a mercurial, larger than life character who is generous, decisive, and will not take no for an answer. He is a nokanshi, a practitioner of the funerary art of encoffination, and his job is to prepare the deceased for their last journey past the eyes of their relatives and into the crematorium's furnace. His business is to make them look alive in the eyes of his customers. His vocation is to make them come to life one last time. For reasons unknown he decides that Daigo as his new apprentice has what it takes to become a good practitioner of the trade. The act is performed in front of an audience of mourners, who may not glimpse the body, and requires dexterity and the sort of respect and dignity which we see as stereotypically Japanese.

Some, represented by Daigo's old classmate who openly shuns him, find the profession to be ghoulish and not respectable. His wife disapproves to the point of leaving for Tokyo again. Yet Daigo seems to have been bitten by the bug and refuses to let them make him quit. Daigo and his boss become closer as the film progresses and he internalises the rite of transition and makes it part of his identity.

Beyond this, people die and those who have to die do so at the proper time for the story to work. The clock of life ticks on, one death at a time. Daigo and his boss continue to practice one of those arts that may be lost in a perfunctory world. Everyone and everything else is incidental. In the end it's a sweet, loving film about people discovering themselves and becoming whole.

Should you watch it?

Yes, certainly, but do not get your expectations too high. Despite its many laurels, I found this film to be somewhat superficial and lacking in strong statements or emotions. Like many of the less mobile characters, Okuribito dwells in the twilight between life and death, not quite managing to affirm great beauty or ugliness in either. It's respectable but predictable and goes by quietly like a shadow in the mist. It is extremely well acted and staged but is perhaps too detached and respectful and strays perilously close to trite and maudlin at times.

Perhaps this film's impact is more unconscious than conscious; I did have some of the weirdest death dreams ever (and I have precious few of those in general) after watching it. But in the end I like it more than I love it. I think you might, too.

Film critic style rating: * * * - (6.5/10)