He arrived at midday and the birds were calling from the trees, the fish were splashing in the creek—the woods path inviting with sun and a “Welcome!” signpost. Her home was there. They had a great love, soon to be married, they talked in the garden. She said, “We mustn’t meet again before the wedding.” He said, “I can’t wait so long.” And he couldn’t.
He arrived at midnight with stealth and—in the moonsilhouetted dark creaking, a birdheaded man screaming and climbing in the tree, something thrashing in the creek, plants seemed to reach out. The signpost had hair. He ran to her door and she opened: she was a glowing badger spirit. “I must leave now that you know the truth,” she said. And she did.
Still Eating Oranges
A young cellist loses his orchestra job in Tokyo, sells his instrument and returns with his wife to his rural hometown. There, a misprinted want ad leads him unintentionally to apply as an “encoffiner” (nōkanshi)—one who performs a ceremony to prepare corpses for display and cremation. So begins Departures (2008), the masterful comedy-drama that won Japan’s first Best Foreign Film nod at the Oscars.
Departures is a quiet film, set to a lovely Joe Hisaishi score and conveyed by subtly expressive cinematography. The aforementioned cellist is Daigo Kobayashi, and his disappointing life slowly is reshaped by his employment to Mr. Sasaki, a veteran nōkanshi. Daigo finds peace and dignity through his work. The acting and dialogue are fantastic; but, in many long and largely wordless passages, the nōkan ceremony—performed with weight, beauty and delicacy—takes center stage.
The dead and those who handle them bear a very old stigma in Japan. Departures makes a different case: that the nōkan ceremony, which has become uncommon in modern Japan, is not filthy but beautiful. In the process the film does not trivialize death’s horror; it argues only that, in our lives and our treatment of the dead, we should not submit to decay. Life is always the answer to death—and Mr. Sasaki’s living quarters are filled with greenery. An unofficial translation of the film is embedded after the break. Seek out the film’s official translation for best results.