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The hero of this film has one of the most graceful professions I have ever witnessed: he prepares the bodies of the deceased for encoffining – is that a word? He washes the bodies of the dead, applies make up and cotton tabs, lipstick and rouge, shaves the men’s faces  – everything to make the bodies look graceful and alive while the families mourn and bid their farewells. This profession requires grace and skill, following a carefully planned choreography that allows you to change dead persons, already in rigor mortis, into their final garment. This happens all over the world, of course – but here we are in Japan, and it seems that part of the local ritual is that all these preparations are not hidden away in the back room of the funeral home, but in full sight of the family at the home of the deceased, as part of the farewell ritual. This requires guts, I kept wondering how many professions there are where so much pressure is on the performer, where the audience is in such a fragile state of mind, where the subtle atmosphere can so easily be shattered by applying the wrong shade of red or by exposing a tiny speck of skin, or by cutting the cheeks with the razor blade and causing the dead skin to fall off. This is seriously frightening, and the film shows both the profound level of appreciation main character Daigo receives for his art (“she has never been that beautiful”), indifference and slight annoyance at a necessary part of the ceremony performed by some outcast (“you don’t want to spend your whole life preparing bodies like that guy does!”) and hysteric rage (“it’s all wrong, all wrong, she does not look like that!”). Daigo discovers his fascination for this late in life, after half a career as professional musician, but when he stumbles across the job to help out the old master, he realizes very soon that this is something he can put his heart into. He knows his choice will not be appreciated, but still he is stunned when learning that his wife is actually so ashamed by what he does that she threatens to leave him.

The film is far from perfect: Why there is such an irrational and aggressive resistance of his family and environment against his job is hard to comprehend (maybe easier if you are more familiar with the culture). There is a wild combination of themes that not always fit together. While in its strongest moments the film frequently returns to the funeral rituals, it also addresses musical passion and father-son issues. Adding the cello as a theme to provide for suitably sad background music is a bit of a blunt sleigh of hands, and there is a strange and ill-conceived kitsch intermission music video montage that took me out of the film quite a bit. The lost and found father theme does not make any sense during the film, but it is always clear that it will play a role at some point, and it does.

“Okuribito”, which won the Oscar for best foreign language film, is still a great movie, as it manages to tell a story about death and mourning in a light-hearted, often funny and – to use that term a final time – very graceful way.

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