Last Rites

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Some time back, I published an article defending human organ sales as a way to deal with the massive numbers of patients currently awaiting organ donation. I was surprised by the response of a number of people close to me. It wasn’t that they felt my arguments weren’t logically and factually sound; rather, they were repelled by the very idea of a market in body parts. They all evinced a deep-seated disgust at dealing in a commercial way with body parts and cadavers, a visceral aversion that blocked logical thought. This didn’t surprise me. Evolutionary psychology suggests that people have an innate aversion to touching the dead. After all, the dead often perished from contagious disease, and such an aversion would therefore confer survival value on those who possess it.

This corpse aversion is at the heart of a fascinating Japanese movie that played in limited release last year and is now available on DVD. Called “Departures,” it was a surprise winner of the 2009 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, and enjoyed major critical and commercial success in Japan. Its success was amazing, both for the size of the box office receipts — over $60 million — and in light of the Japanese cultural taboo against openly discussing thanatological matters.

The movie is adapted from an autobiography by Aoki Shinmom, entitled “Coffinman: The Journey of a Buddhist Mortician.” The lead character, Daigo Kobayashi (Masahiro Motoki), is a young cellist who performs with a Tokyo orchestra. The movie opens with Daigo suddenly learning that the orchestra is going out of business and he is out of a job. He has to tell his wife Mika (Ryoko Hirosue) that he is giving up his profession as a classical musician, selling his expensive cello, and moving them back to his hometown, Sakata.

I chose the words “tell his wife” carefully: at the outset of the movie we see her as docile and uncritically supportive. She meekly acquiesces, and they move to the small city in the remote prefecture of Yamagata. The choice of this locale was deliberate, I suspect, because that area of Japan has one of the highest percentages of elderly residents in the country.

While his wife adjusts to life in the small city, Daigo has to look for work. This part of the film provides great comedy. Daigo sees a help-wanted ad placed by the “NK Agency” for someone to “assist departures.” He goes to the company expecting a travel agency but learns to his surprise that it is what we might call a mortuary. Actually, this is not quite right: the Japanese term “nokan” (from which the agency gets its logo “NK”) translates as “encoffinment.” The coffinman performs a highly ceremonial ritual washing and preparation of a corpse for burial. The ritual is done in the presence of the family, quite unlike the way it is done in our culture, where the mortician prepares the body without anyone in the family being present.

Daigo meets the agency owner Shoei Sasaki (Tsutomu Yamazaki), who instantly decides to hire him, offering him a very large salary. But Daigo is shocked and repelled. Going from musician to mortician — or assistant corpse preparer — would be a rough transition in any society, but much more so in Japan. Nevertheless, having found no other work, he reluctantly accepts. Back at home, when Mika asks what his new job is, he deceives her by using a misleading euphemism (he will be working in the “ceremonial occasions industry”), which leads her to think he is doing weddings.

Daigo’s start in the business is try- ing, to say the least. He first has to play a corpse in an instructional video his employer is producing. He then has to accompany his boss on a particularly gruesome assignment: retrieving the corpse of an elderly woman who has died alone and lain undiscovered for two weeks. He stops at a sento (a communal bathhouse) on his way home to cleanse himself and get rid of the smell.

But as he continues to work, he begins not merely to assist Mr. Sasaki but to perform the rituals himself. He starts to understand that the work has a valuable function. He sees that it comforts families and enables them to come together and reconcile themselves to the death. At home, he recovers his passion for playing the cello.

At this point, the viewer wonders whether we have here a case of rationalization in the face of cognitive dissonance. Daigo has a well-paying job, but he is doing something that even those closest to him would regard as shameful. So he is merely convincing himself that it is a valuable service in order to assuage his self-doubt? Or is there a greater lesson to be learned about life, death, and the way we deal with the inevitable transition between the two?

This issue is resolved as the film moves toward a surprising end, and as Daigo takes on two more services. In the first, both Mika and his friend Yamashita (Tetta Sugimoto) come to understand and appreciate his new profession. And in the second, it is Daigo himself who reaches a deeper understanding of what he does.

Through what we see, viewers also reach an understanding. We grasp that the seemingly bizarre custom of preparing the dead while the family looks on is extremely well fitted to Japanese society, precisely because of its taboo

against discussing death openly.
The acting in the film is simply magnificent. Motoki’s portrayal of Daigo is perfectly nuanced, and both Sugimoto and Hirosue give excellent performances in support. Kimiko Yo, who plays Yuriko Uemura, Daigo’s co-worker at the NK Agency, gives a really fine performance as a woman whose outwardly placid demeanor belies a very dark inner secret. Especially noteworthy is Yamazaki’s powerful but restrained performance as the quiet yet insightful and intuitive Mr. Sasaki. All of this is aided by a superb musical score and excellent photography.

This film withstands comparison to some of the finest Japanese films — which is to say it withstands comparison to some of the greatest films ever made.

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