This was the surprise winner for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2009 Oscars, with the favourite having been Waltz with Bashir
. Personally I can't disagree with the consensus. Waltz with Bashir
is indeed a stronger movie and I'd be slightly surprised if this were even the best Japanese film of 2008, let alone the best foreign-language film made anywhere in the world. It's clearly been selected as the kind of thing that's likely to win an Oscar and sometimes it's a bit boring, but that said it's still quite good.
The story is about a cellist played by Masahiro Motoki, who loses his job when his orchestra is disbanded, so goes home to the countryside and finds himself working as a mortician. This is deliberately paced (i.e. slow) and often funny, but in an oddly drab way. The film isn't trying to be charming. It's about the world of Japanese morticians, the rituals they perform for the recently deceased and how this affects the living's relationships with them and with each other. The results of this are quietly involving rather than dramatic, with the funny bits being more about lightening the tone and keeping the film gentle and watchable. Our hero's a nice chap who takes things seriously. He can see what it means for his customers when he does a good job. That's what the film's about, really.
The plot is both almost non-existent and not entirely convincing. There are some amusing incidents early in our hero's new career as a mortician while he's still green and inexperienced, but apart from that we have two real plot strands here. The first involves Motoki's relationship with his job. He's having to abandon his career, go off into the sticks and start afresh. This wouldn't be so bad if he was becoming a lawyer or a doctor, but for some reason people seem to get sniffy about him becoming a mortician, even if they'd previously been consistently positive and supportive. This is the bit that didn't quite convince me. What's so bad about looking after the dead? It's not as if he's murdering them or anything. In fairness the film's loosely based on an autobiographical book called Coffinman: The Journal of a Buddhist Mortician and so for all I know the book's author really did get all these reactions from his friends and family, but I didn't quite buy it from these characters in this film.
Naturally we eventually get a scene where... okay, I won't spoil it, but let's just say that you won't be leaping out of your seat in surprise. This is predictable, although in fairness it would have been much more so in a more plot-oriented film, but it's also good. The film's tone is delicate enough to allow grief and strong emotion to be given the same slightly distancing effect we had with the comedy, which means that you feel it without it overwhelming the film. There's a speech from an elderly character at the crematorium that's particularly moving. Another thing I liked was the way in which the film avoids emotional reconciliation scenes. They've been made unnecessary. Everything leading up to them is so clear and respectful that there's not the slightest need for us to see what's already playing in our heads, so the film simply lets it be like that and moves on.
The other plot strand is about Motoki's issues with his father, which again plays out: (a) how you think it's going to, and (b) with respectful but profound emotion. I think it's a stronger ending than the resolution to the first plot strand, which would have made a perfectly good conclusion in itself and I've heard it claimed that the film should have ended there. The first plot strand has for me that whiff of plot convenience about it and involves a change of heart from people other than the hero, whereas neither of those are true in the second one.
The cast are good, obviously. The most entertaining character is Motoki's boss, played by Tsutomu Yamazaki. What's fun about him is the contrast between his respectful professional persona and what he's like off-duty. It's nothing you can put your finger on, but he looks as if he's played a few yazuka gangsters in his time. Go back four decades and you'll find Yamazaki in an Akira Kurosawa film, incidentally. Masahiro Motoki doesn't put a foot wrong in the lead role and apparently prepared for this film by spending months learning the cello and practising funeral rites. Understandably this is also a film with lots of older actors, which again is a good thing for those of us who appreciate good performances.
One weird thing I've noticed in my web browsings, incidentally, is the way that it's being claimed that death is "a strongly taboo subject in Japan" and thus the director had been worried about how the film would be received. This sounded sufficiently bizarre to me that I looked up the original interview. "Japanese people tend to avoid the topic of death and treat it as taboo," is what he actually told reporters, which contains the word "tends" instead of "strongly" and could probably be said of almost anyone. However that said, it's also true that Yojiro Takita took ten years to make this film and never expected it to be a commercial success. Winning that Oscar is what of course did wonders for the box office.
This is a controlled, subtle film. It's slow, but it would seem that the people who love it really love it. I can understand that. I'm sure there people out there for whom it's going to hit home about as personally and emotionally as any film can. I can't pretend I've got any plans to watch it again, but it's a film I respect and in an odd way, I'm glad the Academy chose it. Waltz with Bashir
was always going to find an audience as soon as people started talking about it, but this is a more delicate piece and it's no bad thing that it got a bit of nurturing.