Okuribito (Departures), directed by Yojiro Takita, follows an out-of-work Japanese cellist who leaves Tokyo, goes back to his hometown, and becomes a undertaker. The term means something rather different than it does in the west: in Japan, the specialty our cellist learns is "en-coffinment" - the preparation of the body of the deceased and placement into the coffin prior to cremation. This is performed in an elaborate, slow ritual in front of the family, and involves washing the body (while concealing any nudity from the family), dressing it, and making the deceased as beautiful and natural as possible -- with utmost respect, and affection. People who have never witnessed the ritual seem to think of it, and the profession, as macabre, even creepy, but if the film is accurate, when performed by an artist, it is moving, beautiful and cathartic, helping to release both the spirit of the deceased, and the spirits of those left behind.
The film is also extremely funny at times, in fact its balance between humor and wrenching emotion was absolutely sure-footed. I felt that rare sense of bonding within the audience itself: we laughed together, but also cried: when was the last time you heard audible sobs from a dark movie theater? Considering what J. and I have been through recently, it was emotional for me too: I think some of the catharsis portrayed in the film was transmitted to the audience. It was astonishing for me to discover that Japanese culture includes this elaborate ritual -- not always done well, however -- for the preparation of the body of the dead, formerly done by the family but now entrusted to a profession, that goes beyond religion into the culture itself, and ultimately beyond culture to touch our most basic, universal issues as social beings painfully aware of our mortality and the finiteness of human relationships.
I haven't written yet about the death of my father-in-law and what happened afterwards, but I probably will eventually. It was oddly comforting to witness a fully-developed ritual that affirmed the same instincts I've felt, and acted upon to the best of my ability, when caring for the bodies of loved ones immediately following their deaths. Islam and Judaism contain specific instructions for the treatment of the dead, but in western Christianity, with our great discomfort with death and, especially with corpses, we have nearly forgotten the tender responsibility once carried by family members, and as a result we've relinquished a big part of what these immediate hours have to teach us. Trying to reclaim that myself, and confronting and overcoming my own fears and discomfort, has been a profound inner journey in my own life.
This was a remarkable film on so many levels: about relationships, culture, life and death, and especially, perhaps, about what art is at its core. Only one sequence in the middle of the film-- al fresco cello playing and wild goose flight, with a snow-capped mountain background -- felt over-long, and ill-advised. "Okuribito" ranks as one of the best films I've ever seen, and also did what movies do best, opening a world of specific human experience and emotion that flows between the characters and the audience, enlarging life itself.
Yesterday we also saw a good documentary, "Tracing Aleida," about a young Mexican woman's search for her brother; the family was separated after the parents were "disappeared," and an absolutely dismal high-budget Egyptian film, "Baby Doll Night;" I can't imagine how or why it was accepted into the contest here unless the sponsorship of the Egyptian government (the ambassador to Canada was in attendance last night) somehow influenced the choice. Billed as a film "about the dream of peace between all people," the film actually insulted every group it touched: Americans, Israelis, Jews and Arabs themselves, who were often presented as embarrassing caricatures. But it was also simply a terrible piece of movie-making that dragged on, lurching from one situation to another, for nearly three hours. It was the exact opposite of the Japanese film in being totally inept at balancing humor and suffering. We should have walked out - and that's the assessment of someone who generally likes Middle Eastern movies.
Next: love stories and strong women -- in Germany, and Mongolia