Top positive review
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surprising, very funny, very touching - deserved Oscar-winner
on 17 January 2010
This film won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film at the Academy Awards ceremony in 2009. It is certainly unusual, and I rate it very highly indeed. Daigo Koboyashi loses his job as a 'cellist in a Tokyo orchestra, and he and his young wife, very charmingly played by Ryoko Hirosue, are forced to go back into the country and stay in the small house left to him by his mother. He needs work and gets it - as the assistant to an aging but highly expert 'encasketer' - that is, someone who prepares a dead body for burial, a ceremony conducted in the presence of family and friends. The ceremony, to Western eyes unfamiliar, is carried out with great dignity and care, and is an opportunity for those close to the departed to say farewell and to express their grief. The advert. for the job has been vague (partly the result of a misprint) and Daigo does not know what he is letting himself in for. For a while he faces many difficulties and eventually his marriage is under strain, but he stays with the job and comes to admire the skill and professionalism of his employer and to value highly the service they give to the bereaved. There are many other plot strands in the film, but, for those who have not seen it, I cannot write about these, except to say that eventually the work comes very close to Daigo personally, and when that happens, the film is extremely moving - the cinema in which I saw it was hushed, and some of the audience were in tears.
But it is also very funny. There is a bizarre side to the work (as, for example, when the encasketers discover - in front of the family - that the corpse - a girl, it would seem - has a penis) and there is a good deal of black humour in the earlier part of the film. All of the principal characters - Diago, Mika (his wife), the encasketer and his female secretary - are sympathetic characters and it is very easy to empathise with them, so that as the plot moves on, we become involved. Its quaintness is a plus too. Not only is the encasketing ritual intriguing, the town in which Diago and Mika stay, the bathhouse they visit, the very beautiful countryside (sometimes snow-covered) are all visually absorbing. Far on in the film, Diago is filmed playing his 'cello on a raised bank by a road with a snow-covered mountain in the background, and this is striking, even if it is also impossible to believe that he ever actually did this.
The film is quite long and I thought might outstay its welcome, but just at that point there was a splendid coup de theatre (in a fishing village) which really struck home - and then it ended. It was thoroughly enjoyable, beautifully acted and directed and, in its strangeness, memorable. I recommend it with enthusiasm.