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Jeremy Clarke

Directed by Yojiro Takita
Certificate 12a, 130 mins­


The winner of 2009's Best Foreign Film Oscar (and numerous other awards too), this Japanese film is a rarity, dealing head on with death not in its horrific or violent aspects but as a life-ritual as significant as birth. Death being the last great Western taboo, we ought to pay attention.

Daigo (Masahiro Motoki) loses his new job as a cellist when the Tokyo orchestra employing him is dissolved, leaving him with a young wife to support and repayments on an expensive cello to find. Selling the instrument, the couple move back to his small hometown where Daigo's late mother has left him a house in her will. Seeking work, he answers an ad about 'departures', believing it to be a travel agency. The ad should however have read 'the departed', because he's required to deal with the encoffination of corpses prior to their cremation, preparing the bodies for entry into the next life. Encouraged by his likeable boss (Tsutomu Yamazki), Daigo slowly comes to terms with his strange new career, eventually discovering familial redemption when the chance comes to see the body of his father, whom he has not seen since childhood.

While the piece tries a little too hard to deliver narrative closure and suffers in places from an unnecessarily emotional score by Joe Hisaishi (who has written similar but superior scores for fellow countrymen Hayao Miyazaki and Takeshi Kitano), its discreet yet unflinching approach to death is impressive. One presumed female corpse turns out to possess a male member (hidden from view because the camera takes the view of relatives at a funeral, who are protected from the nakedness of their departed loved one by a sheet). Daigo's first case is an old lady who was found by police after having been dead at home for two weeks. Subsequent jobs include the woman who runs (or ran) the local bathhouse - whom we get to know through the course of the film before she dies - and, finally, Daigo's dad, whom we only ever meet in flashback and as a corpse.

Much is made of the taboo nature of the work, with friends (and indeed spouse) distancing themselves from Daigo on discovering the nature of his work, only to realise its great value later on, when they have to come to terms with the death of a loved one. There are also some great truths here about the importance of work in giving value to individuals who undertake it and the way in which it can serve society. The film refuses to operate within any one single religious system - the corpses and their mourners belong rather to a variety of religions, including Christian. Within this framework, however, the director Takita nevertheless articulates some pretty profound ideas about dealing with death and bereavement, something that is all too rare in a movie - making it, unexpectedly, one of this year's must see films.

Jeremy Clarke