The Japanese film industry now turns out about 400 titles annually, but in a given decade only a few Japanese filmmakers win major international awards — including the biggest of all: the Oscars.

One was anime auteur Hayao Miyazaki, whose 2001 megahit “Spirited Away” received an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature Film. Now there may be another — Yojiro Takita, whose 2008 drama “Okuribito” (“Departures”) has been nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.

“I’m happy and honored,” Takita told The Japan Times — probably the 100th time he has said this to the media since the nominations for this weekend’s Academy Awards were announced on Jan. 22.

This is just one of many accolades showered on Takita’s film about Daigo, an out-of-work cellist who finds a new calling as a nokanshi — a professional who cleans and clothes corpses for funerals. The first was a Grand Prix at the Montreal World Film Festival last September, followed by a sweep of domestic prizes, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Screenplay in Kinema Junpo magazine’s annual critics’ poll, whose film awards are the oldest and most prestigious in Japan.

Getting the most local media attention, though, is the Oscar nod — “Okuribito” is the first Japanese film to be nominated for Best Foreign Language Film since Yoji Yamada’s 2003 samurai drama “Tasogare Seibei” (“The Twilight Samurai”). Since the start of this award in 1947, only four Asian and three Japanese films have ever won it, beginning with Akira Kurosawa’s 1951 classic “Rashomon.”

Born in 1955 in Toyama Prefecture, Takita rose up through the ranks of Japan’s then-massive erotic-film industry, directing a popular series of porn comedies about commuter-train molesters. In 1985, he made his first straight feature, the black comedy “Comic Zasshi Nanka Iranai!” (“Comic Magazine”), but his first big hit was “Kimurake no Hitobito” (“The Yen Family”). Scripted by Nobuyuki Isshiki, this 1988 indie comedy about an avaricious family cleverly skewered bubble-era excesses.

Takita made five more comedies with Isshiki, but his career took a more serious — and mainstream — turn with “Himitsu” (“Secret”), a 1999 weeper about a high-school girl (Ryoko Hirosue) whose soul enters her mother’s body when both are involved in a traffic accident. The film was a box-office success in Japan and later remade by Vincent Perez as “Si j’etais toi.”

In the current decade, Takita has tried various genres, from period fantasy (the two “Onmyoji” [“The Yin Yang Master”] films in 2001 and 2003) to samurai swashbuckler (“Mibugishi-den”; “When the Last Sword is Drawn”; 2003) and youth drama (“Batteri”; “The Battery”; 2007), but more with the local mass audience than critical prizes in mind.

In September of 2006, Takita agreed to direct “Okuribito.” Star Masahiro Motoki had first had an idea for a film about nokanshi nearly seven years earlier and finally sold his pitch to producers Toshiaki Nakazawa and Yasuhiro Mase, who proposed the project to Takita.

“I thought there was something different and interesting (about this film) when I first read the proposal,” Takita told The Japan Times in an interview at the Yokohama Film Festival on Feb. 1, where “Okuribito” won prizes for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Supporting Actress. Smoking one cigarette after another with a long plastic holder, he spoke in quick, nervous, if affable, bursts.

“I had never seen this sort of material before,” he said. “But in choosing all my films I find something to be interested in — so it wasn’t unusual in that regard. It was hard to imagine how it would do commercially, though.”

Takita filmed “Okuribito” in the winter of 2007, with Tsutomu Yamazaki playing Daigo’s grizzled, but supportive, funeral-home boss and Ryoko Hirosue as Daigo’s much younger wife Mika, who is at first appalled by his new profession, but comes to understand it. Working from a script by Kundo Koyama, Takita leavened the film’s serious drama with touches of his trademark humor, including a memorable opening scene when the hero discovers that the young woman he is preparing for her last rites was really a transvestite.

“It’s not easy, getting the right balance between drama and comedy (with this sort of story) — one mistake can throw everything off,” commented Mase, who first worked with Takita on “Himitsu.” “But Takita was able to do that well in the delicate world of this film — that’s what makes him so special.”

Released in Japan last September, “Okuribito” became a favorite with not only critics but also audiences, recording more than 2.6 million admissions and earning more than ¥3 billion at the box office. These are astounding figures for a Japanese film not based on a popular TV show, anime, manga or novel, and whose subject matter is fraught with cultural taboos.

“It’s really hard to know how well a film of this sort will do at the box office until it opens,” Takita said. “As for why it’s done so well . . . it’s a little bit strange for me to be analyzing this, ha ha . . . but I think the people who saw it understood it and told their friends about it. In other words, it was a word-of-mouth success, which is something I’m happy about.”

Takita felt from the beginning, though, that “Okuribito” had the potential to be an extraordinary film with “a positive message.”

“The hero is someone who had never had to make choices about his life,” he explained. “From the time he was small his life had been decided for him by others. It’s the story of how he grows as a human being and discovers his own sense of values.”

It’s also about how Daigo and his young wife, who at first sees his new profession as both icky and low status, come to better know each other and, in Takita’s words, “find love and hope.” Initially, however, Mika was supposed to be about the same age as Daigo — that is, their late 30s (Motoki is now 44) — but the search for a suitable actress came up blank. Then Takita suggested the younger Hirosue, who had starred as a teenager in “Himitsu” — and proposed her for the role to Mase.

“In the beginning (Daigo and Mika) are somewhat naive — they don’t know a lot about the world,” Takita explained. “Then they are faced with a crisis and have to deal with it — and in the process, grow as people. For that reason, I thought that a younger actress would be better — she would be better able to show that change.

“Also, Hirosue has a wide range. I saw that when I directed her in ‘Himitsu,’ where she played a mother as well as a high-school and college student, when she was still in her teens.”

But the film’s center is Motoki, who rose to fame as a singer with boy-band Shibugakitai in the early 1980s but has since developed a career as a serious actor, working with such leading directors as Masayuki Suo, Shinya Tsukamoto and Takashi Miike. As the nokanshi, Motoki expresses not only a musician’s grace and precision, but compassion and respect for the deceased by attitude and gesture.

“More important than the way an actor says his lines are his expressions,” Takita commented. “It’s really difficult to get that sort of thing right — there are so many ways to see a character. What’s good about Motoki is his transparency; he lets you see into his (character’s) thinking and behavior.”

What are the chances of “Okuribito” landing an Oscar? Takita would rather not speculate, but Mase noted that the film, with its upbeat story of an unemployed middle-aged man finding a new life, has zeitgeist appeal.

“The whole world is in a recession now,” he said. “The timing is right.”

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.