Aculture’s attitude toward death is always going to be something of a mystery to outsiders, even ones who try to immerse themselves in the local language and customs. I had my own cultural shock when my wife’s father passed away, and I experienced the Japanese funeral process for the first time.

He died of a heart attack at home in the middle of the night. I first saw his corpse in his futon, grasping a Buddhist rosary. Since, as far as I knew, he had no religious beliefs whatsoever, this struck me as incongruous, but I had little time to reflect since I and other male relatives were pressed into service moving his still-warm body to another room, where his female relations would prepare it for the funeral.

I’d never done anything like that in Ohio.

Director Yojiro Takita
Run Time 130 minutes
Language Japanese
Opens Opens Sept. 13, 2008

Yojiro Takita’s “Okuribito” focuses on one Japanese death custom that, because of those female relations, I did not experience: the ministrations of the nokanshi (literally, “encoffining master”), a professional who cleanses and clothes a body. The film’s nokanshi hero, played by Masahiro Motoki, elevates a simple task to a refined ritual with practiced, elegant movements, while communicating a compassion for the deceased. This, he wordlessly shows the survivors, is no mere lifeless body, but a person worthy of respect and love. With his expert touch, he brings the dead back to a semblance of life.

Takita, together with producers Yasuhiro Mase and Toshiaki Nakazawa, labored nearly a decade to bring “Okuribito” to the screen, which sounds about right, since the subject does not shout “big box office.” More surprisingly, all three are commercial filmmakers, though Takita directed indie black comedies, notably “Kimurake no Hitobito (The Yen Family)” in 1988, before going mainstream with films like the hit period fantasy “Omyoji (The Ying Yang Master)” in 2001 and teen baseball drama “Battery” in 2007.

The film begins with the hero, Daigo Kobayashi (Masahiro Motoki), already a nokanshi, working on a most unusual subject — a young transgender man who has died as a woman, though his relatives have neglected to inform Daigo and his boss, Sasaki (Tsutomu Yamazaki), of the fact. Daigo’s discovery of his subject’s sex is funny in Takita’s old black comic vein — and indicates that “Okuribito” is going to be hard to describe. But I’ll try: It’s about finding your bliss, even if the world thinks your bliss is odd, icky and a marriage breaker.

After this intro, we see Daigo in his previous life as a newly out-of-work cellist.

With no prospects for another job, he and his perky young wife Mika (Ryoko Hirosue) move to his hometown in rural Yamagata. There he answers an ad for what he thinks is a travel agency and learns from the cheery, blowzy receptionist (Yo Kimiko) and later from the gruff, if welcoming, president (Tsutomu Yamazaki) that they send clients not to Hawaii but to the next world. Daigo takes the job anyway and discovers that he has an aptitude for it, though his first assignment, an old woman who died alone in her fly-infested house, is stomach-turning.

As a child, Daigo was abandoned by his father and left alone after the death of his much-beloved mother. As a nokanshi, he finds that by helping others accept their losses, he can better deal with his own. The job is also a natural outlet for his musician’s sense of beauty and order. Mika, however, can’t get over the yuck factor, as well as the social shame of her husband’s profession. She gives him a choice: dead people or her.

Masahiro Motoki had the original idea for “Okuribito” and, as Daigo, gives the performance of his long career — restrained, but fully expressive of his character’s many sides. Tsutomu Yamazaki, as the crusty pro Sasaki, gets laughs with the sort of irascible, scampish shtick he has been perfecting since his breakthrough as the truck-driver/ramen-guru in Juzo Itami’s “Tampopo” (1985). At the same time, Sasaki serves as a credible role model for his younger colleague — a pro who thoroughly enjoys the pleasures of life, from the food on his table to the plants he surrounds himself with.

The film may idealize the nokanshi’s job — Daigo’s subjects are often younger and more attractive than the real-life norm — but it also makes a good case for the Japanese way of death. Better to be prepped for the final journey by a nimble-fingered nokanshi creating a human ikebana display than made up, Western-style, like a wax dummy for Madame Tussaud’s. Too bad I won’t be around to see the show.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.