I love being in the United States for many reasons. Opportunity to watch world class movies is one of them. A lot of movies make their way here, sooner or later. I had no idea that Okuribito has won so many awards when I read its impressive story line using Flixstr app on the screen of my iPhone. I told A, “Let’s go watch this Japanese movie that seems to have figured out what death is all about”. “A” turns to me and says, “Oh it has won several awards, including an Academy Award”.
The small theater was filled with a lot of old folks. My guess is…about 80%. Maybe more. I don’t think it is a co-incidence that people who perceive themselves to be closer to departure are the very ones who chose to watch this movie. Did I know who Yojiro Takita is? No. Did it matter to these people? Probably not.
The opening scene of the movie shows a young man, driving a car in between snow filled roads. Think about the first scene of the movie Fargo. The similarity ends there though. He talks about his orchestra that went bankrupt. He quits his job as a cellist and returns his 18 million yen worth of cello. Daigo and his wife Mika leave Tokyo and move back to this hometown, where his deceased mother has left him a modest house. Soon, he comes across an ad in the newspaper for a person who needs no experience to help with “departures”. Little does he know what he’s getting into. The job involves working with dead bodies, cleaning them and putting them in the casket. Making the dead ready for their funeral and for entry into the next life. It pays him well and he keeps his job description hidden from his wife. In fact, his first assignment involves posing as a corpse for a short video that his boss is making. The boss plans to use this video to train others. The rest of the movie deals with his coming to terms with the realities of death, the effect of his deathly job on his relationship with his wife and the impact that the various funeral procedures have on him.
Some of the main characters of the film: His boss- Who hires him on the spot because very few people want this “unreal”, taboo-ed job; his wife Mika- a great woman who never questions the husband, finds happiness in the saddest of situations (sounds cliched, yes) and most importantly, has the strength to remain married to a man with an unconventional job and somewhere down the line, to understand her husband’s dedication and professionalism towards a job he grows to love and respect; his dad who leaves his mom when he was only six, the old lady who takes great pride in running a public bath and the desk attendant from work.
There is this scene in the movie where he is standing by the river, staring at salmons swim. One of the salmons gets stuck behind a big boulder. Daigo thinks, “Why do these fishes travel all the way only to get stuck and killed?”. A old man who is passing by tells him, “Because they want to come back to their old home first”. Such profound philosophy. I’m pretty sure I’ve heard this before. Maybe it has to do with growing up in Southeast Asia, but we do have this notion that a person always wants to die in his place of birth. So far, I haven’t come across this concept in the US.
Not every death scene in the movie is sad and depressing; each funeral has something new to contribute to the general story line. For example- Imagine cleaning the body of a beautiful woman and stumbling on a penis. Yes, a man-woman commits suicide. Daigo’s boss asks the deceased’s father if he would like his kid to be dressed as a man or a woman. Then there is this young woman who dies on the motorbike of her boyfriend. Daigo goes about his usual job of cleaning her dead body and applying make up on her face. The mom realizes how innocent and pretty her daughter looks while she sleeps. And how much of a pain her daughter’s real-life persona was. Another widower breaks down when he sees his dead wife for the last time. He’d never seen her look so beautiful. These snippets are important because they show the impact the dead have on the living. Daigo, the professional that he is, remains relatively untouched on a personal level.
All hell breaks lose when Mika finds the taped video of her husband posing as a corpse. Daigo refuses to leave the job that he’s grown to love. He likes the influence that he creates on others during their most intimate moments. It makes him feel important. Mika leaves him and returns to her native village.
The death scene of the lady who runs the bath is the second most beautiful scene in the movie. She was the one who had heard little Daigo cry longingly for his father behind the closed doors of a public bathroom. For Daigo, it’s a tremendous honor to send her on her final journey. For Mika, this is the funeral that brings her closer to her husband. She witnesses Daigo’s love for his job. And the old man who Daigo had met near the river makes a come back. He happens to be the dead lady’s lover during her final months. He also happens to be the man who’ll push the button that will cremate the dead lady’s body electronically. The dead lady’s son wails loudly as he watches through a small window his mother’s casket light up in the fire. He regrets all those hours that he spent fighting with her, asking her to close down the public bath and to sell the land to a real-estate agent who can build modern condos.
Daigo’s life comes a full circle when news reaches him of his father’s death. He’s determined not to pay homage to a man who never inquired about his well being, after he deserted Daigo 30 years back. The only material thing that ties him is a large stone that was gifted to him by his father. Daigo doesn’t even remember what his father looks like. So the man that he sees lying dead is a stranger to him. Until he finds his father clutching on to the stone that Daigo had given him. I don’t even want to try and express the mixed emotions that were flowing through my mind and the minds of many others seated next to me. Tears were freely flowing down people’s eyes when they saw Daigo shaving his dad’s old beard, trimming his hair, cleaning his body and putting on fresh clothes.
“A” tells me that he saw lots of men in the restroom splashing cold water on their faces, deep in thoughts staring into open space. I don’t even want to imagine what they were thinking about. Perhaps imagining their own death scene.
This movie, at a subconscious level, reminded me of a very personal experience- Me, as an eight year old, witnessing the old body of my dead grandmother being cleaned. There were men and women all around crying loudly. My grandmom’s sister held me on her lap and gently rocked me. I don’t exactly remember, but I think my mom and some other aunts dressed my grandmom in a bright red sari, applied make up and made her look like a new bride. There was a hired photographer who took pictures. I’ve never had to go back to those paper photographs. That’s one scene I can never forget. It traumatized me for months. And this film brought it all back.
This movie has some of the finest cello and piano pieces. Japanese Cherry Blossoms and fine emotions that’s missing in a lot of Hollywood movies. Please do take a look if you get a chance.
Trailer from Youtube: