Japanese film

The Art of Transformation

The term “funeral parlor” does not quite do justice to the scene. The Japanese word “nokanshi” is closest to “encoffineer,” but the word only describes the task of preparing the dead body for cremation. The nokanshi in the Academy Award-winning movie Departures does the task, yes – but does so carefully, lovingly, and artfully.

Such an “art” of preparing the dead body seems unnecessary in today’s modern Japan: by law, the body will soon to be cremated, so pragmatism dictates only the minimum preparation. In Departures, even the grief-numbed family of the deceased cannot fully comprehend why this art is taking place. Other funeral directors do not really acknowledge that the occupation of nokanshi even exists in modern Japan.

Isn’t our task to get rid of the body as soon as possible? Apparently, we have all forgotten, in our pre-packaged, convenience-driven culture, how to bury our dead. And yet someone passes away every day somewhere in our provinces. Death is ubiquitous and immediate to our lives, but we do as little as possible to prepare to face that reality. Thus this “art” of preparing the dead body infringes upon the most sacred, and the most neglected, part of our lives. Departures chooses to dwells there, deep beneath the tradition and conventions of our days, and at the same time dares to plumb the depth of Japanese aesthetic and culture.

If Departures was simply a tale of a strange, macabre fascination with the dead, or a typical story of tradition crashing with the modern, it would not be so worthy of our attention. But this movie feels different, from the nostalgic opening of the snow of the northern country of Yamagata to the poignant ending, bringing together all the hidden strands of submerged stories.

The film challenges the old wineskin of blockbuster filmmaking. Ten years in the making, Departures is much more than a film; it points to the emergence of a serious new transformative force in filmmaking by the Japanese. Watching Departures is like watching an awkward teen blossom into a beautiful young lady. It is nothing short of astonishing.

The movie’s enigmatic beauty is unexpected. Who would have expected a film about dead bodies to be so revealing of life and spirit, and such regional scenery to begin to dominate our urban journeys? How can a ritual to prepare a dead body be so compelling? And who are all these remarkable actors who produce a symphony (a la vintage Woody Allen movies) of allusive and memorable scenes?

Not many years ago – when the only noteworthy Japanese films were Akira Kurosawa’s spectacles, Hayao Miyazaki’s animation genius, or an occasional horror flick – one would have expected a film like Departures never to reach a wide audience, or even have been created. But I have always wondered why the Japanese could not make a compelling film, when the Japanese culture and aesthetic is so dependent on visual imagery and nuanced expressiveness (think of Noh theatre). When Hirokazu Kore-Eda’s hauntingly beautiful Maboroshi came out in 1998, I anticipated great things.

But it wasn’t until I saw Departures that I could say with confidence that Japanese films now have what it takes to reinvent the craft of filmmaking altogether. The world needs to pay attention – and patronage – to the subtle aesthetic, the story-rich culture filled with humor and pathos. The Japanese, I expect, will produce some of the most memorable offerings of the coming days.

Departures tells the story of a frustrated young cellist returning to his hometown in Yamagata prefecture in northern Japan with his wife. When he applies for a job he thinks is with a travel agency, a strange tale begins to unwind. The master nokanshi, played by veteran actor Tsutomu Yamazaki (known to play Shogun Hideyoshi in films, and who was also in Kurosawa’s masterpiece Kagemusha), begins to work on Daigo, the main character (splendidly played by Masahiro Motoki, who produced the movie). The viewer is invited to witness a subtle act of persuasion, and the acting allows a deeper story, undulating beneath the surface, to reveal itself.

The story tells of a prodigal son, still angry at his missing father abandoning him, and a master taking in an accidental progeny. It is also of an urban dweller returning home to his furusato (“old home”).

I’ve lectured in Yamagata College of Art, invited by a friend who taught there, so I’ve seen firsthand this humble city surrounded by mountains. The town seems to be caught between traditional boundaries and modern capitalism; between ski slopes (now a bit dilapidated) and pachinko parlors (definitely not dilapidated). Departures is also about boundaries of accepted customs and traditions that we are forced to cross every day whether we dwell in cities or in the country.

But it is also about how art can transcend these boundaries, defining the cultural geography of tradition in postmodernity. Departures ultimately is about the nature of beauty within a convoluted landscape. All of the actors and scenery instinctively capture this tension and give it resonance.

The Japanese have the ability, and the unwritten code of honor, to make all acts, however mundane, beautiful and refined. There’s no reason why they cannot apply the same principle to acting as they do to every other task. When I was coming back to the airport from Tokyo, I saw several elderly workers clean the elevator belts with sanitized towels because of the flu threat. They had developed the “art” of the belt cleaning, each with a distinctive style. Every subway announcer, Koshien (high school baseball) cheerleader, department store elevator operator, and gas station attendant all take pride in what they do and create unique signature to their “art.”

Japan is also a gift culture, where things are wrapped and presented beautifully. It is a country full of artful wax models of dishes served in restaurants (a welcome sight for gaijin visitors), and anything bought in the stores is wrapped carefully and diligently. So it is no surprise that there is such an art form of nokanshi, a delicate ritual of wrapping the dead.

But, of course, wrapping a dead body is not as simple as wrapping a book (every book purchased in Japan is given a cover by the cashier, so that the act of reading will be private) or a box of sweet cakes (which in themselves are an art form owing to their connection to the tea ceremony). A nokanshi has to prepare the body, which means stuffing cotton into every opening in the body to prevent leaks, and will occasionally have to deal with decomposed bodies – or decapitated bodies, due to suicides by leaping onto the track of an oncoming train.

Over a decade ago, Masahiro Motoki read Nokanfu Nikki, by Buddhist mortician Aoki Shinmon, which describes the nokanshi procedure in detail, inspiring the film’s story. Taking every precaution in depicting this delicate issue, he took nearly a decade to produce and release the film, never expecting it to do well. As an actor, he navigates delicately and awkwardly between the harsh reality of dead bodies and live, screaming families of the deceased. But it is the ensemble of cast he assembled who surrounds him, and their dedication to the art that makes the film a true gift.

Ryoko Hirosue, who plays the long-suffering wife who cannot fathom why her husband would be engaged in such an objectionable trade, deserves an Oscar of her own. Her portrayal of transformation, and of devotion, is radical for the sole reason that Japanese culture does not have a model of fidelity beyond certain conflicts, of faithfulness and love that grow out of tension. The moment of such marital transformation, depicted without words or fanfare, reveals a depth and promise rarely seen from American movies. The Japanese, it seems, can capture such depth of inner transformation, to invite the viewer to feel the truth without bludgeoning the point or moralizing the tale.

Takashi Sasano, who appears in close to a hundred Japanese films as a comedic character actor, plays an attendant at the cremation plant. “I have come to realize that death is a gate,” he tells Daigo. “It’s not the end, but a step, a passageway. So I am a gate-keeper, to say good-bye, but also to say ‘See you again.'” (The original Japanese text is below in the Yamagata dialect, beautifully stated by Sasano.) His apt presence in the film, as with all of the “minor” characters, is not minor, but filled with pathos and hope at the same time.

This “gate” symbolism is reminiscent of the Biblical text in which Jesus says, “I am the gate.” (John 10:7) The “gate” opens the door to a new life, and the fire that consumes our bodies can become the divinely-appointed route to sanctification for us. Christians prepare the dead, not so they look good going into the cremation chamber, but to honor the body they believe God calls sacred.

But how many of those who see death as a gate, rather than an end, would dare do the unwanted task? Would we volunteer our artistry to consider those who may be neglected by society, or who do not see death as a preparation, our final destiny? Should we not be the first to engage with the sick (swine flu included) or the dead? Would we be honored to be called a misfit in order to fulfill a sacred call to serve the “least of these?”

Extravagantly and gently, Departures moves us to such emotional and spiritual quests. In Japan, beauty has always been associated with death; it is only now in Departures that we have a re-definition of Japanese beauty as a conversation for persevering, enduring life. It is a rare feast – even among the dead, the accursed ghosts haunting our convenience culture – to taste such lovingly crafted delicacy, a re-humanized vision for death and life.

「スゥ(死)はモン(門)なんすぅ。 死は終わりではなく、次のスッテップへの