Director: Yôjirô Takita
Writer: Kundô Koyama (screenplay)
Stars: Masahiro Motoki, Ryôko Hirosue, Tsutomu Yamazaki
A cellist leaves Tokyo to return to his hometown and takes a job washing and dressing the dead for their coffins before cremation.
This was a quiet, spare, gorgeously emotional movie that explores the sometimes painful and broken relationships between parents and children, as well as the Japanese cultural distaste for those who come in contact with the dead.
And I was completely memorized by the original soundtrack, especially the cello solo the main character plays in memory of the father who left him as a child. No surprise that after googling the composer, it turned out to be the great movie (and Ghibli collaborator) Joe Hisaishi/久石 譲. The main theme has almost a Copeland feel to it at times, which was particularly emotionally striking when the movie portrays the main character playing the cello outdoors with the Yamagata mountains in the background just as flock of white swans takes flight.
The restrained conversations, lingering facial shots, and slower pace of the movie, content to follow mundane movements of a woman refilling a kerosene heater, or a man grilling puffer fish roe as well as lending ceremony and gravitas to the act of placing makeup on a corpse’s face was pure Japanese culture in my eyes. As was the distaste for the main character’s job from the wife and friends.
I had to explain to Tokyo Boy that it wasn’t likely a USA mortician would be left by his wife solely because of his job.
But in the end, what makes the movie so enjoyable (despite some slighly overwrought emotions on the part of the main character, and an interaction with his wife that borders on assault in my American eyes as he is overwhelmed by emotions. It made me really uncomfortable) is what else it shares with Ghibli’s movies like Totoro, besides a composer: an overwhelming nostalgia for a more traditonal and slower-paced country life.
From scenes of bathing in a old sento/public bath, to the sweeping mountain and river scenes, to the wife breathing in country air, and the interconnected small community of the village where people know intimate details, to the rows of old-fashioned and dilapidated buildings in the town, the movie paints a wistfulness for a disappearing way of life at the same time it teaches us the importance and gravity of caring for our dead as a way of healing our own relationships.
There are few other heavy-handed melodramatic moments other than the uncomfortable wife/husband moment…but most of the movie is a quiet, understated kind of emotional build up finely conveyed by some of the most famous, venerable veterans of Japanese cinema. Well done, lovely, definitely recommended for anyone interested in Japanese culture or traditions as well as those with an appreciation for deep exploration of human emotion. Tokyo Boy thought it was amazing as well 🙂