Film / Reviews

'Born Bone Born': A family reunited by a skeletal bath

by Mark Schilling

Contributing Writer

Having attended a few funerals here and seen dozens more on the screen, I thought I knew a bit about the ceremonies and rituals surrounding death in Japan. But “Born Bone Born” by comedian and director Toshiyuki Teruya (aka Gori) proved me wrong — at least about his native Okinawa.

Based on his award-winning short film, the similarly titled “Born Bone Boon,” “Born Bone Born” centers on “bone washing,” the Okinawan ritual of washing the bones of the deceased four years after their entombment.

One point of reference is “Departures,” Yojiro Takita’s 2008 film about the similarly rare (at least in Japan) ritual of encoffining. But where the encoffiners of “Departures” labor to bring the dead back to a semblance of life, the family in “Born Bone Born” confronts the raw fact of death in a decomposed corpse.

Born Bone Born (Senkotsu)
Rating
Run Time 111 mins.
Language JAPANESE
Opens Now Showing

Teruya, who also wrote the script, frames this ritual with heart-warming family drama of a familiar sort, set on Aguni, an island located 60 kilometers northwest of Okinawa’s capital, Naha. It’s easy to see where the story is going — one look at the pregnant daughter (Ayame Misaki) of the family’s patriarch (Eiji Okuda) and we know the “born” part of the title will be more than a metaphor — but its deep familiarity with the local culture freshens and enlivens even hackneyed plot turns. And once the ritual begins, the film enters an uncharted territory at once unsettling and moving, exotically strange and universally human.

The story begins with the funeral of Emiko (Mariko Tsutsui), the beloved wife of Nobutsuna (Okuda), once an island factory owner and now a bankrupt alcoholic. He has been bailed out by his salaryman son, Tsuyoshi (Michitaka Tsutsui), but he can’t accept Emiko’s death: At night he collapses drunk next to her empty futon.

Flash forward four years: Yuko (Misaki), the aforementioned daughter, lands at Aguni ferry port with a big belly and no husband. At the family home she finds Nobutsuna, still a ruined shell obsessed with his dead wife. And when Tsuyoshi arrives, his resentment at his father and anger at his sister explode. “Aren’t you ashamed to see Mom in that state?” he shouts. But Yuko’s feisty Aunt Nobuko (Yoko Ohshima) — Nobutsuna’s sister — quickly takes her side, scolding two gossips she overhears at a neighborhood store discussing the family’s woes, including Yuko’s pregnancy.

Then, almost on cue, the man responsible for that pregnancy turns up: The long-haired, lumpish Ryoji (Qtaro Suzuki), who was Yuko’s boss and boyfriend at the Nagoya hair salon where she worked. When he asks Nobutsuna’s permission to marry her, while accidently banging his head on a table, the answer is a flummoxed silence.

As the above suggests, the film’s comedy is broad and its drama formulaic, with nearly everyone playing to bumpkin-ish type. But the island itself looks lovely and when Nobutsuna and other local men jump in the ocean to net some fish, their delight is palpable. Also, as the time for the bone washing approaches, we see that, while behaving and even sounding mostly like average Japanese (they don’t speak the local variant of the Okinawan language, which would require subtitles), the family has distinctly different customs and beliefs that an outsider like Ryoji (who serves as an audience stand-in) clownishly struggles to understand.

But “Bone Born Bone” illuminates its mysteries with affection, knowledge — and that long-anticipated bundle of joy.