A movie review
Director Yojiro Takita's Academy Award winning foreign-language film is about a musician, whose big city dreams meet with an early demise, forcing him to reinvent himself in a radically different vocation in his small home town.
Daigo Kobayashi (Masahiro Motoki), a Tokyo cellist, loses his job when his orchestra goes bankrupt. Disillusioned and penniless, he returns to his late mother's modest house in the country with obediently adoring wife Mika (Riyoki Hirosue) following three paces behind.
His urgent need for funds and a misprinted ad in the local paper lead him to accidentally apply for mortuary work instead of becoming a travel agent. He secures an interview with a Mr. Sasaki (Tsutomu Yamazaki) in the funeral business, who hires him as his assistant on the spot. (Bear with me, as funny as that sounds this is not a comedy.)
While the money is fabulous, the occupation entails being a travel agent of a different kind, preparing the corpses of the newly departed for their final destination. The rigorous demands in this "niche market" require a special type of person and Daigo questions his ability to make the transition, as he has "never experienced death up-close before."
The strange new circumstances Daigo finds himself in, when he says "yes" to his new profession leave him socially shunned, and on his own. He quietly rebels against pressures to conform (by looking for more acceptable employment) because he instinctively recognizes that parting with his former self is in line with his destiny.
Mostly, he needs to be alone to process his feelings. Bit by bit, he allows anger and hurt to emerge for resolution, toward a father, who abandoned him in infancy. Daigo seeks refuge in playing his boyhood cello (found in the attic), in long nature walks and in the steamy solitude of the bathhouse, run by an old family friend. While he is gradually transforming, from dedicated musician to diligent "coffinman," his compassion for himself and others deepens.
The form of how he earns a living may be different but he has gifts that help him shift from the past to the future: his artistic vulnerability to beauty, goodwill toward others and a capacity for healing. Only the specific physical details of his unusual career move need to be apprenticed. Aiding him in his choice, is the eccentric Mr. Sasaki, who takes an affectionate, fatherly interest in his progress without being intrusive.
Befitting the serious subject matter this is a good natured, gentle movie. In spite of the grim theme, the story told is far from gloomy. Yojiro Takita uses the warmth of humor delivered in delicately small doses, without loss of face to anyone, throughout his work.
A rich musical score, by Joe Hisaishi, tugs at our heart strings – accompanying a quiet landscape – and scenes showing Daiga sweating it out in the bathhouse, in preparation for the big leap ahead.
The funerary cleansing ritual is a visually exquisite ceremony. It is staged at the home of the deceased, in full view of the attending family. A reverently graceful, parting dance choreographed with hand movements, well-mannered bows, and respectfully revealing very little of the body to be prepared, is a fascinating glimpse into Japanese burial customs, so different from what we are familiar with in the western world.
Daigo, born anew, is never more real than while "performing the ritual of casketing." A wounded healer, he's become an outcast but he is neither tragic, nor broken. Willing to stand apart, he has found his true calling. He is still an artist, bringing his authentic self, in every minute detail, to the task at hand. With sensitivity, earned through a willingness to contend with his own anger and pain, he is balanced and whole, eager to serve.
The film has been criticized by some for its leisurely narration. However, stories like this cannot be hurried. We need time to slow our pace in order to appreciate the twilight realm of beauty. That is where Daigo uniquely provides comfort consoling others with his very presence. It takes the cadence of a musician to orchestrate the mystery of death for a maximum of meaning.
Go ahead; cry your eyes out – if you ever had to let an old dream die, or have ever experienced anything or anyone you had to leave behind – it's good for you!
Other stories by Victoria Barkley: