Death is a really hard subject to tackle, period. People in general don’t want to talk about it or deal with it, so imagine how much harder it would be to craft a film about it. Well, apparently this hasn’t deterred Japanese filmmakers. Two of my favorite Japanese films take on that challenge and spin two elegant tales centered around death.
Departures was the 2008 Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Language Film. It was Japan’s first win in this category, a monumental achievement for such a quiet film.
It’s the story about a cellist named Daigo who loses his job when his orchestra in Tokyo is dissolved. He and his wife return to the small seaside town of his childhood and occupy the house his mother left him when she died two years earlier. Desperate for work, he interviews for a job advertised in the local paper that cryptically indicates that he would be dealing with “departures.” The pay is great but it turns out that the job involves being an encoffiner, someone who prepares the dead for their casket during the mourning ceremony. Through Daigo’s journey, we come to appreciate the elegance and beauty of this ceremony, portrayed as an honorable send-off for the departed from the world of the living.
The trailer hints at the comic elements of the film which thankfully are never over the top.
Although it’s not a sequel to Departures, After Life does pick up where Departures leaves off. Directed by Hirokazu Koreeda, it’s a film about what happens to you after you die. It’s not so much about the actual after life, but a meditation on memory and how we define ourselves by those memories.
In After Life, when you die, you end up in a waystation where the souls of the recently deceased are processed before entering “heaven.” “Heaven” in this case is a single memory from one’s life. A staff of deceased souls work to recreate that memory on film and once the deceased watches it, they disappear into eternity only with that one memory. It’s such an interesting concept and done so tenderly. One of my favorite characters is the old lady with Alzheimer’s diease. I love the way her counselor creates a memory for her to live with for all eternity since she has no memories of her own to draw upon.