Oscar nod sheds light on Japanese death rituals

TOKYO Fri Jan 30, 2009 12:19pm IST

TOKYO (Reuters) - Preparing corpses for the coffin is not the most glamorous of professions, but an Oscar nomination for "Departures" has thrown an unexpected spotlight on the hidden world of the Japanese mortician.

Director Yojiro Takita, a veteran of comedy and fantasy movies, scored a 3 billion yen ($33.5 million) domestic hit with this tale of an out-of-work cellist who stumbles into a job that at first disgusts him, but gradually becomes a vocation.

Now boasting an Academy Award nomination for best foreign film, the movie is set for a wider audience, with screenings planned in 29 countries.

"I knew there was such a profession, but I had no idea exactly what they did, or what sort of life would lead people to do it," Takita said in an interview with Reuters this week. "I wanted to peek into a world that people don't normally see."

The film's hero, Daigo Kobayashi, played by Masahiro Motoki, finds himself jobless when the orchestra he plays with is disbanded. He sells his expensive cello and he and his wife Mika move to the snowy northern town where he grew up, in an attempt to start a new life.

Answering a mysterious ad for "help with journeys" lands him a post as an apprentice mortician, something he feels obliged to hide from his wife.

Unlike their counterparts in many countries, Japan's "nokanshi" perform cleansing and beautifying services in the presence of the bereaved family, in a ritual that must combine an atmosphere of sympathy and reverence with a magician's sleight of hand.

Takita himself attended a number of such rituals to try to gain an understanding of how families react.

"The purification of the body, the make up, the change of clothing are aimed at recalling the most vibrant time of that person's life," he said. "That sparks such a variety of emotions. There are people who laugh, thinking about how glad they are to have known that person."

Actor Motoki, one of the driving forces behind the production, learned to play the cello for the film and rehearsed the mortician's ritual for months, using production staff and fellow actors as model corpses.

"He did it beautifully, with spirit and in his own style. We joked that if he lost his job, he could make a living as a nokanshi," Takita said.

Casting the corpses was more of a headache.

"It was difficult. Whatever you do, living people tend to move various parts of their bodies. But there are some who move a lot less than others, though I don't know if you could call it acting," Takita said.

Although surprised that a film on such an esoteric topic should be recognised with an Oscar nomination, Takita said he felt it had qualities that would make it accessible to anyone.

"The main character suffers disappointment and pain, but also experiences the joy of life. These are universal human emotions in any age," he said.

This year's Oscar winners are set to be announced on Feb. 22 in Hollywood.

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