Japanese Film Departures , 2009's Foreign Language Oscar Winner, Illuminates Asian Rituals of Death

One thing people haven't quite figured out is how to escape death. Oh they try, and have many ways to prolong life before the inevitable occurs. We have certainly developed endless religions and mythologies to contend with what happens after death. But one thing's for sure, death happens and the dead occupy a large part of life. Every culture on the planet has its own unique and elaborate rituals for dealing with the dead -- especially when it happens to be one of us.

Now, when it comes to ritualization, the Japanese are the ultimate fetishists. And they show no exception when it comes to the matter of death and developing elaborate rituals for dealing with the dead -- though it has never been much of Nipponese cinematic subject (unlike say, the Irish where there seems to be a funeral or wake in nearly every film made about people of Gaelic descent)--that is, not until the film Departures was made.

Telling the tale of Daigo Kobayashi, a classical cellist who has lost his job and way, the film details his return with his young wife to his hometown where he find a new job -- preparing the dead for burial -- and himself. Apparently, the film's universal message and the tender way in which "encoffining" is handled by director Yojiro Takitaand its star, Masahiro Motoki so affected one important audience -- the nominating committee for the Foreign-language Film Academy Award -- that the film not only got nominated this year but won the Oscar, much to the surprise to many of those familiar with the other choices.

With that accolade in place, the film made its U.S. premiere at this year's Tribeca Film Festival and finally opened for general audiences at the end of May 2009. In order to properly enlighten the journos invited to meet with director Takita and star Motoki, a lengthy interview session was conducted.

Q: Winning the Academy Award must have had a huge impact on the film's box office receipts in Japan?

It had a very sizeable Japanese audience before the Academy Award but the box office has more than doubled [to over $60 million] after the Academy Award, yet there's a part of me that wishes it wouldn't take an Academy Award for it to get that big.

MM: The other phenomenon is that in Japan, the DVD release date had already been set in anticipation of a certain kind of theatrical run. But because of the Academy Award, the theaters continued to remain packed even though the DVD was already out, so that's very unusual. Also, we're starting to see people coming, especially older people who haven't been to a movie theater in 30, or 40 years. So we're really finding a fresh, new audience.

Q: You both have very unique backgrounds, and have followed somewhat unconventional paths to the Oscar. Motoki, you started out in a boy band in Japan. And Takita, you were directing pink films [softcore porn] in Japan. How surreal that must have felt, having reached the pinnacle of your profession by going from there to the Oscars?

YT: For me, it's been a very straightforward journey. It may look a little strange to you, but I think most filmmakers are a little strange anyway! I think the only thing that never varied was my love of filmmaking, and my efforts to stay true to the film that I'm making. That has never varied throughout my career, and I hope that will stay true from now on.

MM: It's true, I did start out my career initially in a pop band [as an] idol singer. But I doubt that my singing skills were such that if I had stayed a singer, I would have wound up with a Grammy. I don't think that was in the cards for me! I'm very fortunately to have become an actor, because film can be such a universal language, and through that medium, my work was able to be appreciated by people outside of Japan.

But on the other hand, there was a larger sense of fate that carried me to that [Oscar] stage, because an actor has to find the right material, and the material has to jive with the times and the zeitgeist and the ethos, and all of that came together in a very organic way.

Q: What were the circumstances that led you to the book you studied, Coffin Man, and what helped you find a film in this material?

MM: I actually didn't know anything about encoffining. I initially read about it in a book about 20 years ago. It seemed that a complete stranger cleaning and handling a corpse before sending it off into the next world would make a fantastic film. As I read the book, it really played out for me in a cinematic way--I could really see it as a film.

You know, the profession of encoffining was entirely new to me. I had seen corpses displayed or laid out in a coffin, but I had no idea how a corpse gets to that place, or that there was an actual ritual around that whole process. It actually ultimately started when I traveled to India in my 20s and had seen a cremation ceremony on the bank of the Ganges River. It was a very fresh scene for me, because in the same moment, the past and the future co-existed, and it seemed like the same was true of the encoffining ritual. By openly acknowledging death, it ends up having a life-affirming impact on the living. So I wanted to share this and not just keep it for myself.

Q: What acting methods did you use during the film and how did you develop the character?

MM: The film of course is very delicately themed, so I was very mindful of that as an overall guidepost for my performance in terms of observing and respecting the very quiet, still atmosphere. The director is very skilled in eliciting and capturing the comedy in human folly, even in the midst of all this sadness.

But overall, in terms of technically, I needed to accomplish two things: I needed to be able to perform on the cello as though I looked like a professional performer, and I also spent about two months apprenticing with an encoffiner because I needed to look like a professional at [that].

Q: What is Takita like as a director?

MM: He has a longtime, loyal crew, so they work very, very efficiently. In Japan, it's very easy for people to get caught up in the day and end up with a lot of overtime. But his crew was very efficient, which was very much appreciated!

One of Mr. Takita's great skills as a director is that he finds comedy in very ordinary human behavior, and he enjoys finding the comedy of everyday life and flushing it out. I know that the theme this time is a very quiet and delicate theme, but his belief is that the more earnest a human being is, the funnier it looks from a little bit of a distance. So he definitely directed me very specifically towards that direction.

Q: Can you give any examples?

MM: I tend to underplay and be subdued in my reactions as an actor. But because the quiet moments are already there, he really pushed me to -- in my definition -- overact a little bit. In the scene where they're making the video about how to encoffin and I had to wear some adult diapers, he really pushed me to do what I would consider "overacting." He's just saying that the director sees a certain approach to a 'double-take,' and the director's always concerned that the audience understand it, and that it not be left up in the air.

Q: There was some struggle to get the film released after it was made, and it took almost 13 months to release it.

YT: It took 13 months for the film to be released because the film deals with death, and even after the film was completed, it was a kind of mystery to a lot of people as to how this film could find its audience--even in Japan--as well as how to market it to reach that potential audience.

Q: Did you study death rituals in other countries and how did this research inform your approach to Departures?

MM: I [not only] read about the Japanese encoffining procedure in Coffin Man, I certainly did read about other cultures and how they send off the dead. I know in Tibet, they have the "bird funeral" where they surrender the corpse directly to the birds in the mountains.

In the West, cremation is less popular than it is in Asia, and you have the custom of directly burying the body in a coffin in the earth. I also did learn that the whole embalming technique especially evolved through the Vietnam War, [with] the need to send home fallen soldiers back to the States in the best possible shape.

Also, there's a fascination with the profession of undertaking -- judging from the popularity of the HBO show Six Feet Under here. Each culture is concerned in their own way with respecting and addressing the dead. But ironically, learning about those different customs made me appreciate our Japanese ritual all the more.

YT: I didn't have a concrete understanding of death and the various procedures around it, so I did read a lot to prepare for the film. Of course, I was interested in this question of embalming. We don't actually have it for a number of reasons in Japan, including that we don't actually have a military. But I was interested to learn that embalming is very respected as a technical profession [here], which is not true in Japan.

But the story itself, as you know, is a deeply Japanese film -- and a very Japanese subject -- and I knew that I could afford to be as authentically Japanese as I wanted to, because the universality of death would help the film to find its international audience.

Q: Do you have any friends who are encoffiners?

MM: Actually, I don't. But while I was training for the film, I met many different encoffiners. I was surprised to discover how many young people there were, as well as women, who were choosing this as a profession. By the way, because this movie is such a hit in Japan, job applications for encoffining are now up three times, or so they say!

Q: The film's original score by Joe Hisaishi was essential to the story.

YT: I had worked with Hisaishi before when I made a samurai film, and I knew from the way he had read the music into the script for that film that he's somebody who can really generate a world of music that's commensurate to the film.

This time, I was thrilled when he said yes to composing the music, and, because the story is about a cellist, we agreed before doing it that there would be almost no music besides the cello used in the film.

Of course, it was impossible to just have the cello be on the soundtrack, so there were some other music elements. But ultimately, the main theme at the end is played with 13 cellos. In a discussion before we started filming, he was able to envision and compose the main theme, so we were able to play that during the filming, and it really helped to inspire the actors.

MM: Practicing for this film was the very first time I'd ever touched a cello. The cellist told me that the timbre and tone of a cello is, of all the string instruments, the closest to the human voice, so it reverberates very, very organically to the human body. I think that wound up adding a layer of nuance to the film, although technically it was a huge challenge for me to perform the cello convincingly.

But for me as an actor, it was very inspiring to be able to work with that instrument. And I also felt that there was a very lovely, metaphorical connection, since the cello is originally inspired by the human form--especially the female form--so I start out embracing the cello, which is based on the human body, and then I [begin to] embrace the human body directly, in the form of a corpse.

Q: When Daigo's wife and friends find out that he's an encoffiner, they reject him and deem him "unclean." Is there a cultural stigma in Japan that's related to this profession?

YT: Yes. In Japan, for a long time, there has been a sense that death--and the people who have to deal with death--definitely [has] a stigma. Death is considered impure or tainted, and so we have long denied death, and that kind of prejudice certainly existed within the wife, which initially drove her far away. But what I was trying to portray in the film was not the prejudice itself, but her ability to articulate it as being the first step towards reconciliation for them. So, I really see her role as being someone who is still immature, and the film's story is the story of maturation.

Q: Since the film is very specifically Japanese, do you think audiences here in the United States will miss something because they're not Japanese?

YT: Actually, I'm sure they will understand the film. I'm not really worried. If anything, I'm more interest in knowing what the American reaction is, and I'm not worried that they'll miss any specific elements. I'm very curious to hear about the American reaction, and to learn more about my film from hearing their reaction!