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Friday, Jan. 30, 2009

Departing for the Oscars

Nearly 400 new Japanese films appear in the theaters every year, but few make an impression, critically or commercially, outside Japan.

News photo
Mountain man: A scene from the Japanese film "Departures," which has been nominated for an Oscar as best foreign film. © EIGA "OKURIBITO" SEISAKU IINKAI

In the United States, foreign films in general seldom get a hearing, let alone a viewing, from not only subtitle-allergic fans, but also from many supposedly knowledgeable film journalists and critics.

One exception to this blackout is Oscar season, when nominees for the Best Foreign Language Film Award become part of the discussion, however briefly. The rules for this prize are complex, but basically candidates from nearly 60 non-English-speaking countries are winnowed to a short list of nine by 300 Academy members and to the final five by a special of committee of 30.

Since the Academy began handing out foreign-language film Oscars in 1947, only three Japanese films have won them: Akira Kurosawa's "Rashomon" in 1952, Teinosuke Kinugasa's "Jigokumon" ("Gates of Hell") in 1955, and Hiroshi Inagaki's "Miyamoto Musashi" in 1956. Altogether, only four Asian films (the other being 2001's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Drahon") have received the award.

This year Takita Yojiro's "Okuribito" ("Departures") beat steep odds to become one of the five nominees, the first Japanese film to do so since Yoji Yamada's "Tasogare Seibei" ("The Twilight Samurai") in 2004. For Takita, who rose to fame in the 1980s as a maker of black comedies, including the international hit "Kimurake no Hitobito" ("The Yen Family," 1988), but later became a maker of commercial films, such as the two "Onmyoji" ("The Yin Yang Master") period fantasies, the odds were long that "Okuribito" would even get made.

Together with producers Toshiaki Nakazawa and Yasuhiro Mase, as well as star Masahiro Motoki, who first had the idea for "Okuribito" nearly 10 years ago, Takita labored long and hard to film this story of an out-of-work cellist who finds his true calling as a nokanshi, a professional who ritually washes and clothes corpses prior to placing them in the coffin.

When Mase asked me to read the script to "Okuribito" several years ago (I had first met him and Takita when I programmed their fantasy drama "Himitsu" ["Secret"] for the Udine Far East Film Festival in 2000), he was a bit apologetic, perhaps thinking the subject would be off-putting.

But once I got past a queasy scene or two (one involving flies and unpleasant odors), I found an unusual — and unusually fascinating — story of human renewal and love, for both the living and the dead. It may have Buddhist underpinnings, but it's is universal in its themes and nonreligious in its treatment. Takita tells it with a combination of humanistic gravity and blackish humor, with much of the latter supplied by Tsutomu Yamazaki's puckish undertaker, who hires and trains the hero. But it is Motoki who gives "Okuribito" its heart — dressing the dead, from oldsters to a loose-socked teenage girl, with feeling and grace.

What are its chances for an Oscar? Given the awards and praise being showered on another nominee, the Israeli animated docudrama "Waltz with Bashir," the honest answer is "not good." But "Okuribito" has already performed a miracle at the Japanese box office, grossing more than ¥3 billion. Perhaps on Feb. 22, when the Oscars are announced, Americans will start talking about the strange, beautiful art of the nokanshi.

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