I Dress Dead People (Film Review: “Departures”)

A sneaky charmer from Japan that illustrates just how much life-infusing joy can come from working with dead people.

SnapShot Plot

Young Daigo Kobayashi (played by an earnest Masahiro Motoki) is an accomplished but uninspired classical cellist in a Tokyo-based orchestra. When the organization is finally dissolved for lack of audience attendance, he and his cheerful bride, Mika, make the tough decision to sell his expensive instrument and return to the rural home bequeathed to him by his deceased mother. Abandoned by his father when he was a young boy and raised alone by his mother, he grew up believing the worst about a father he never knew and could barely even remember.  Immediately after settling in, Daigo answers an ad for a job titled departures, assuming it’s some kind of travel business.  There he meets his new boss, Mr. Sasaki, played with a masterful wit and seriousness by veteran Japanese actor Tsutomu Yamazaki. What the young man discovers is that out in the countryside of Japan, an age-old ceremony of “encoffining”  (called nōkan) is still carried out, by which the undertaker hires a professional mortician (or nōkansha) to ritually dress and prepare bodies before they are placed in coffins. Daigo’s initial revulsion turns to curiosity as to why Mr. Sasaki hired him on the spot without even an interview.  And as he accompanies Sasaki on the road and witnesses the physical transformation of each corpse under the caring and meticulous hands of the old man, his curiosity turns to an awed respect as he witnesses too, the spiritual transformation of the families themselves as they are – in a sense – reunited with the best versions of their loved ones for a final moment of togetherness.



Parting Shot

The film is at its best during the ritual scenes of encoffining and only falters when trying to inject a dash of slapstick humor here and there, but thankfully that doesn’t occur too often to ruin the tender tone of this unique film.  In fact, the lead actor, Masahiro Motoki actually trained with a professional nōkansha and also learned to play the cello in preparation for this role.  And he had plenty of time to acquire these new skill sets, as the film took more than 10 years to get off the ground. I especially related to Daigo’s journey of self discovery, the arc of his relationship with Mika, and the family unit he finds in his new profession which gives him the strength to face his own personal narrative, proving his own spiritual salvation.  I hope you will relate too.

Departures (Okuribito) was directed by Yōjirō Takita and stars Masahiro Motoki and Tsutomu Yamazaki. It won the 2009 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and the Japan Academy Prize for Picture of the Year.

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YouTube Trailer Courtesy of:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MtdENmR6jKw


  • Norma says:

    Piera, I am honored that this film touched you in the way that it did, and so appreciative of your own inspiring observations and impressions. I especially concur about the music. . . and about lessons that can be learned from film. I only hope you’ll continue to be moved and entertained by my Picks to come. Thank you!

  • Piera Accumanno says:

    Thank you for selecting such a moving and eloquent film. The macabre subject matter, if not handled gingerly and respectfully, could have changed the essence of the film altogether. The director did a beautiful job of walking us through the beauty of the ritual. The decedent is honored and made beautiful to move onto the next life. Since the ritual is performed at home, it gives the mourners an opportunity to grieve and begin the closure process.

    The other character of this film is the moving music. The cello takes on a beautiful, peaceful quality after Daigo completed the ritual a few times. It seems Daigo learned how to be inspired by simple things he never saw or felt before.

    The most moving part is when his wife (who wants him to leave such an ugly profession) witnesses how beautifully he prepares for burial an old woman they both knew and respected. She was touched by its subdued magnificence and learned to respect him and his gentle craft.

    The underlying subplot of dealing with your past and learning to forgive was tenderly woven into the story. I cried for about 1/2 of the movie. Its rare when one can learn from a movie about love, family, living, forgiveness and rocks — this is such a move. I can’t wait to watch it again since I may have missed something.

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