Americans might find it hard to understand how a story about funerals can be mesmerizing, inspiring, and even funny, but that is what director Yojiro Takita (Ashura) has accomplished in the 2008 Oscar-winner for Best Foreign Language film, Japan’s Okuribito, known in English as Departures.

Daigo Kobayashi (Mashiro Motoki), a cellist in a small orchestra, has just bought an expensive cello. When the orchestra suddenly closes for lack of audience support, he’s devastated. Unable to find employment in the metropolis, he decides to return to the childhood home bequeathed him by his deceased mother. His loving wife, Mika (Ryoko Hirosue), hides her disappointment and agrees to move with him. He sells his beloved cello and the couple heads north.

They find the house as his mother left it, furnished and full of the mementoes of his childhood, including those of his father who abandoned his mother and him when he was a child. It was to gain his father’s love, not so much as passion for the cello, that made Daigo work tirelessly to become a cellist. Alas, economic realities have struck even in the hinterlands and Daigo is not able to find work. One day he answers an ad that includes the word “departures.” Thinking it’s a job in a travel agency, he goes to the address and applies for the job.

The owner of the agency, an elegant older man, Ikuei Sasaki (Tsutomu Yamazaki), is delighted to meet Daigo, offers him a surprisingly high salary and hires him on the spot. Daigo is thrilled, until he learns the true nature of the job. “Departures” is a typo. The ad should have read “departed.” Daigo will be helping Mr. Sasaki prepare dead bodies for their transition to the next life.

In ceremonies performed in the home of the deceased, the bodies are ritually washed, dressed, and groomed to look their best, then placed in caskets to be taken to the crematorium. The job is an essential one in Japanese society, but it is considered so low-caste that old friends spurn Daigo. When his wife learns what his job is, she is so horrified that she returns to live with her own family until he regains his senses and gets a “normal” job.

At first horrified himself, Daigo gradually learns, under the wise and compassionate tutelage of Mr. Sasaki, that “encoffinment” is a job he can do, and do well. He comes to treat the dead bodies with solicitude and respect, to perform the ancient rituals with precise care and artfulness, and most especially, how to interact with the families of the bereaved–some of whom despise him, while others are transformed.

Daigo experiences firsthand the terror of death, its surprises, its loneliness, the effects it has not only on the bodies of the deceased, but also on the lives of those left behind. Each job for him becomes a stepping stone in his own spiritual journey, a spiraling around the ghosts of his past and a longing to make his future meaningful.

Through each story on Daigo’s journey, the powerful timelessness of the nature weaves its redemptive web. Nowhere on earth, it seems, do cherry blossoms take on the mythic proportion that they do in the spring of Japan. Here also, for Daigo, wave-smoothed rocks from the seaside hold a message of reconciliation.

Departures is a work of immense beauty, transforming the reality of death into a revered part of life. It’s impossible to see the movie and not think about what we usually avoid — thoughts of our own death, and how we treat those in our lives who are dying. The film is perhaps one of the most touching I’ve seen in ages, sad, yes, but also funny because humor as a constant thread of life, often appears in big doses at funerals.

At 130 minutes, Departures might be a tad long for impatient American viewers. I urge you to do a quick culture shift and allow yourself to revel in the film’s respectful pace. You’ll be grateful you did.

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