There isn’t really a comfortable English equivalent for the Japanese word “nokanshi,” or “encoffining master.” Nokanshis aren’t quite undertakers or morticians, nor are they priests, though they perform some of the functions of all those professions. Charged with preparing bodies for burial as families and loved ones look on, a nokanshi is simultaneously ceremonial and practical, getting the body where it needs to go and making sure it receives its proper respect on the way.
If the film Departures is to be believed, it’s also a profession viewed with disdain and disgust. Much of the drama of Yôjirô Takita’s Departures, the surprise Best Foreign Language winner at this year’s Oscars, comes from the way everyone around protagonist Masahiro Motoki shuns him once he takes a job working for an experienced nokanshi (veteran character actor Tsutomu Yamazaki). A failed cellist, Motoki stumbles into the job thinking he’ll be working for a travel agency. Instead, he winds up dressing bodies, applying makeup, and dealing with grieving relatives. After overcoming his initial reluctance, he starts to enjoy the job, while keeping the details from his wife and friends. But when the secret gets out, they all leave him.
That may seem like an overreaction, but it unfortunately keeps with Takita’s notion that nothing can be played too broadly, and no heartstrings can be tugged too hard. An experienced director—he started his career in Japan’s “pink film” soft-porn market—Takita fills his film with handsome shots of provincial life, and the nearly wordless scenes of Motoki and Yamazaki performing their job have a poetic quality. But the rest of the film drips from one overstated emotion to the next. Yamazaki brings a wry wit to his role, but he ends up speaking in familiar affirmations about the value of savoring life, simply restating what the film has been saying all along, and what the logic-defying climax screams through tears. Here’s a great way to start savoring life: Don’t waste it on pat manipulations like this.