Outside, wind-whipped snow piles high but inside the trim room there are pineapples and candles on an altar, a family seated patiently on pillows on the floor and a stunning figure resting on immaculate bedding beside an ornate box.
Two strangers in dark suits enter and the Japanese funerary rite known as encoffination begins. And this begins “Departures”, the Japanese film by director Yojiro Takita that won this year’s Oscar for Best Foreign Film.
The film follows a young man through a difficult time in his life. Daigo Kobayashi loses his job as a cellist with a Tokyo orchestra and returns to the bleak provincial town of his youth. Mika, his cheery wife, follows. The only work available is as an encoffineer, or nokanshi, the individual who prepares a dead body for viewing. Daigo vomits into his palm when he sees his first corpse and hides the details of the job from Mika. The boss, a staid man getting on in years, won’t let him quit, and through him Daigo learns that despite the public’s general lack of respect for the job—one man he meets on the street shields his child from Daigo and girls on a bus sneer at him—there is great honor in the profession.
A body’s physical departure can be brutal; one client, a young woman, is killed when her boyfriend crashes a motorcycle, but the departure arranged by the encoffineer is sublime. The body begins in a patterned robe, resting on a thin white mattress with the head propped on a white pillow. The encoffineer gently scrubs the body with a warm wash cloth. Stray whiskers are shaved from the face and cream that softens the skin is applied. Colorful beads are entwined about the fingers and the hands are clasped across the chest. The robe is removed while the encoffineer delicately dangles a white sheet in front of the body to ensure no flesh is exposed to the family. They help the encoffineer lift the body into the coffin then they say their goodbyes.
The precision and elegance of encoffination seems distinctly Japanese, but in reality few Japanese even know about nokanshi, said Takita, in one interview following the film’s release last fall. He and members of the cast participated in actual encoffination ceremonies. The experience clearly benefited the film, it also affected Takita. “I am afraid to die, but not afraid of ‘death’ itself anymore,” he said. “I came to think that I must tell kids that death exists in everyday life. It is important for us human beings to witness, that we are given birth with crying, and we die crying.”
And yet, even after the film’s success, little information is publicly available on the web about nokanshi. A Google search on the term revealed only hits related to the movie and there is no Wikipedia entry.
When I called the Japan Society, in New York City, I was connected to a Japanese woman who said she didn’t know much about the process. “It is kind of a profession that is hidden and not spotlighted,” she said.
She transferred me to Ryo Nagasawa, who knew a bit more. “Even for Japanese people, it is a surprise,” said Nagasawa, referring to the film’s encoffination scenes. “Not very many people have seen it done that carefully and with that much affection.”
The process conveys the Japanese people’s adherence to Buddhism, as well as Shinto, a religious belief system that dates back several millennia and places high value on the purification of objects, anything from water to an automobile factory.
“You’re supposed to treat the pencil really carefully because that also has a spirit,” said Nagasawa. “Water, trees and even the desk and the chairs have spirits. You’re not supposed to hurt the desk.”
As Daigo takes to his new profession he begins encoffinating everything. Even a sandwich, he daintily prepares and lavishes as if it were a body he were cleansing for the coffin, a habit he realizes his boss has picked up too. “Everything is a corpse,” the elder encoffineer tells Daigo, while savoring a salted piece of puffer roe he has just finished grilling. “The living eat the dead, unless they’re plants.”