There has been an official Oscar category for best foreign film since 1956 when the winner was Fellini's "La Strada". Between 1947 and 1955, a foreign language film was selected for an honourary Oscar. I have seen most of these sixty-odd movies and have copies of quite a few that I particularly liked, although there have been several that were watchable but not 'keepers' in my book, like the soppy "Life Is Beautiful" (1998). Then there have been a number that have eluded me: "Walls of Malapaga" (1950), "Gate of Hell" (1954), "Black and White in Color" (1976) to name a few. However while I don't bend over backwards to find showings for all of them, I am always happy to tick off another one from the winners' list.
This recent Japanese winner seems an unlikely choice in a year with crowd-pleasers such as "Waltz with Bashir", but since the eventual winner can only be selected from those Academy members who have actually seen the film, the voting numbers are potentially low. One reason that it seems a surprise winner is its theme of death -- and the very Japanese way of dealing with it. Our hero, Masahiro Motoki, (an actor unfamiliar to me) is a cellist in a second-tier symphony orchestra which plays beautifully but which attracts a scant paying audience on its provincial tour. When the owner disbands the orchestra, Daigo knows he is unlikely to find another musical position and moves back with his young wife to the small town where he was raised and into the house left to him by his recently deceased mother. He sees an advertisement in the local paper for an inexperienced young man to assist with 'departures'. Thinking this is some sort of travel agency work, he applies and is immediately hired by the firm's boss who explains that there was a typo in the want-ad and that the work involves the departed. He reluctantly accepts the position since the money is good, but is ashamed to tell his wife what he is doing, since there seems to be a widespread prejudice against dealing with the deceased -- as if death were contagious.
It is a Japanese custom to wash and prepare the dead body in front of the grieving family, being careful to expose no flesh, as a way of helping them accept their loss. This is not done by the undertakers but it is a niche market into which Daigo has fallen. At first the movie appears to be a comedy and is played for occasional laughs, such as the scene when our hapless hero reaches under the shroud of a young female suicide and discovers that 'she' is a 'he' or when he is instructed to play the corpse in a training video. However it takes a more serious turn as the film progresses. Having discovered the nature of his work, his ashamed wife leaves him and his friends in town jeer at his occupation. However when she discovers that she is pregnant, she returns and gradually realises the tenderness and compassion in what he does when a family friend dies. Finally he prepares the body of the father who deserted his mother when he was six and who has not been in touch over the years, finding a reconciliation with his past that has previously escaped him.
The movie is very chokey without being depressing, but the subject matter is unlikely to lift the audience in any 'feel-good' way. Although it is all very tastefully done, it is not a film which would encourage multiple viewings. I'm glad to have seen it, but once is enough. The film's director, Yojiro Takita, has had a long career which includes the recent movies "The Yin Yang Master" (2001) -- a fantasy and "When the Last Sword is Drawn" (2003) -- a samurai saga, so this Oscar winner is something of a complete change of pace. Some might find the film slow and the subject matter a little offputting, but one must acknowledge the genuine sincerity with which this unusual story is told.