Raw Japan

Slices of Japanese business, politics and life

Mortician tale an Oscar surprise

February 23, 2009

Even the lead actor was surprised when his movie “Departures”, about an out-of-work cellist who takes a job as a mortician preparing corpses for cremation, won the Oscar for best foreign language film today.


The film has been a box office hit in Japan but it faced stiff competition and Masahiro Motoki, did not expect to win against the Israeli favourite in the category, “Waltz with Bashir”.

“I saw the Israeli movie which I honestly had thought would win as it was wonderful,” says Motoki, who instigated the Japanese film and worked on it in a 10-year labour of love.

“So I walked the red carpet as a hanger-on who just observes the ceremony. Now I regret that I did not walk with more confidence.”

“Departures” is a beguiling tale that had a theatre of people sniffling with tears when I went to see it.

The cellist, needing work, answers a mysterious job ad for someone to “help with journeys”, which lands him a post as an apprentice mortician, something he feels obliged to hide from his wife.
To his surprise, he likes the job, which teaches him about life and death.

“The purification of the body, the make-up, the change of clothing are aimed at recalling the most vibrant time of that person’s life,” director Yojiro Takita told me in an interview last month, after his film was nominated for an Oscar.

“That sparks such a variety of emotions. There are people who laugh, thinking about how glad they are to have known that person.”

Being an undertaker in Japan is a bit different from in the West, where such tasks are carried out in a funeral parlour, out of sight.

Japanese morticians perform cleansing and beautifying services in the presence of the bereaved family, in a ritual that combines an atmosphere of sympathy and reverence with a magician’s sleight of hand.

It was a double celebration for Japanese films at the Oscars this year.

Tsumiki no Ie“, or “La Maison en Petits Cubes” was named best animated short film. The 12-minute short, directed by Kunio Kato, portrays the life of an old man who battles floods caused by global warming.

Photo credit: “Departures” director Yojiro Takita (L) holds the Oscar for best foreign film beside actor Masahiro Motoki during the 81st Academy Awards. REUTERS/Gary Hershorn

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