18 February 2009 | CountZero313
the rituals that sustain us
Almost three decades since starring in Juzo Itami's classic The Funeral, Tsutomu Yamazaki once more shines in a tale woven around the rituals, traditions and theatre involved in Japanese death rites. The irreverence that makes Itami's classic such a delight is present here. Daigo's first day on the job playing a stiff in a DVD for the funeral business comes back to haunt him in hilarious fashion later on. However, there is also reverence, the film respectfully pointing out that the people who do this necessary but thankless task do not deserve the disdain and revulsion that their profession often attracts.
Daigo loses his job as a cellist, returns to his inaka roots and stumbles into a job as an undertaker. Too ashamed to tell his wife, he slowly warms to his apprenticeship under the masterful tutelage of Sasaki. As he goes about his business, the inevitable traumas of a childhood long forgotten bubble to the surface as he goes about re-acquainting himself with the town. The conduit for the negative feelings towards his profession is Daigo's wife Mika, who takes punitive steps on discovering his new employment.
Screenwriter Kundo Koyama has to take credit for a script that moves along briskly, juxtaposing black farce with raw tenderness, all done seamlessly, and acutely observed. Lipstick on a corpse produces gales of laughter, and you are reminded that sometimes the best fun is had at funerals. Daigo moves towards a form of reconciliation and redemption through the promptings of those around him, and the comfort of his cello.
It would be all too easy for material like this to lurch into sappy sentimentality, but the film tugs at the heartstrings without overtly manipulating its audience. Motoki has to take some plaudits for this for a performance that amuses at times but hints at deep inner turmoil at others. Hirosue is less consistent, at times indulging in the head-bobbing, giggly, saccharine sweet girlishness that is the forte of the Japanese TV drama actress. She has one line in the climactic scene of such stunning obviousness I am surprised it stayed in, but for the most part she redeems herself in the tense interactions with Motoki over their differing views on his new career. Overall, she convinces as the supportive but put-upon wife.
From Kurosawa's Ikiru through The Funeral and now Okuribito, Japanese cinema has a rich vein of movies that exploit the rituals of death. How those rituals comfort us, enchant us, and see us through to a place where the pain still exists but might come to an end, is laid bare in Okuribito. It is an absorbing, moving tale, full of laughter and tears, that celebrates the intricate details of a Japanese rites of passage while laying bare their universal function. Best seen in the cinema, to get the full effect of the luscious orchestral score.