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The Japanese Way of Death

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

People hate the thought of dying so much, it's no wonder whole industries exist to either help us delay the inevitable with medicines or tart us up with embalming fluids when it's our time to lie six feet under. The Japanese are no exception. Any culture that turned the act of pouring a cup of tea into an intricate ceremony long on symbolism could certainly turn a wake into a meaningful ritual that helps families say sayonara to their loved ones. Departures ("Okuribito") provides an illuminating, touching, yet not humorless look inside a little-known profession, even for the Japanese.

Yojiro Takita surprised many at the Oscars when his film took home the Best Foreign Language Film award, knocking the critically favored Waltz with Bashir off the red carpet. For its underdog status alone, the beautifully shot Departures is worth a look.

Don't expect a satire or exposť of the funeral business, like Evelyn Waugh's "The Loved One" or Jessica Mitford's "The American Way of Death." Departures approaches its somber topic with both levity and respect, not irreverence.

Like many salarymen in Japan these days, Daigo Kobayashi (Masahiro Motoki) finds himself out of a job. He's a cellist in a Tokyo orchestra that dissolves itself when concerts fail to attract enough paying concertgoers. But unlike some of the recently unemployed there, who hold on to their dignity by pretending they still have a job to go to each day, Daigo returns with his wife to his sleepy hometown in northern Japan to start life over.

As he looks for work and lives again in the house he grew up in, Daigo comes to terms with a past that evokes both fond memories of his late mother and conflicted, fading memories of his absent father, who abandoned the family when Daigo was a boy.

Soon a classified ad leads him to what he thinks might be a travel agency (the ad is titled "Departures" but that's a misprint). It turns out to be a small mortuary business that practices nokanshi, the craft of dressing up the recently deceased for family viewing before the eventual cremation. Unfortunately, working with dead people appears to rub folks the wrong way, so he must let his optimistic, devoted wife, Mika (Ryoko Hirosue), think he's working in a regular office, while his hometown friends continue to believe he's a big-time cellist.

The gruff but amiable boss, Mr. Sasaki (Tsutomu Yamazaki, memorable as the trucker Goro in Juzo Itami's 1985 classic, Tampopo), is just one reason why Daigo stays on rather than finding more conventional work. Despite the initial shock at this new line of work, he finds in Sasaki a master who seeks to pass his craft on to a younger generation. Daigo probably also senses in him the father he never knew. In any event, Sasaki is a likable fellow who sees death so much that he nurtures the living around him (plants and people) and relishes his own good cooking.

Daigo soon takes great pride in his job because he sees how much it helps others. For the families involved, the nokanshi ceremony is cathartic. It allows them to connect with their loved ones like never before, sometimes unpredictably, and to show emotions that they usually hide. Without undue sentimentality, Departures gives us a sense of what death is like for the family members left behind.