Tuesday, July 18, 2017

'Nokanshi': the Japanese 'art' of preparing the dead for cremation

Image result for Masahiro Motoki AND Departures
Publicity photo in the internet.

We simply had to catch the last two movie features of the Eigai Sai Japanese Film Festival at the Shang Cineplex on EDSA: The Long Excuse/'Nagai Iiwake'  (Miwa Nishikawa,2016) and Departures/'Okuribito' (Yojiro Takita, 2008).  Eigai 2017 is the 20th festival, and in celebration, the Japan Foundation offered 20 films. That means we missed 18. We were in perfect attendance in the previous Eigais.

Death was the underlying theme of the two movies. And incidentally, Masahiro Motoki was the lead actor in both films. He performed characters who had to deal with issues of death in different contextual frameworks.

In The Long Excuse, Motoki is the popular writer Sachio Kinugasa whose wife Natsuko died when the bus she rode with her friend for a holiday in an ski resort crashed into a frozen lake. 

The movie delineated how Sachio coped with the loss of his wife of twenty years vis-a-vis his personal and professional circumstances. He stepped into the life the inconsolable husband of his wife's friend and his children, and in the process, all of them were able to move on. 

It was not part of the movie, but in real life, Sachio would engage a nokanshi to prepare Natsuko's body for cremation.

In Departures, Motoki is the cellist Daigo Kobayashi who  became a nokanshi in his old town where he and his wife settled down after the symphony orchestra of an urban city was dissolved. He was looking for a job and responded to an ad from what he thought was a travel agency. It was a mortuary; and a typo error indicated a task of attending to  the 'departed' not travel 'departures.'

The closest meaning of a nokanshi is "encoffiner or encoffining master" one who prepares the body before it is laid on the coffin and brought to the crematorium. Japanese law requires cremation, and usually the nokanshi is called while the dead body is still warm. 

As depicted in the movie, the family of the deceased watches the process, but the ritual is so practiced and refined that no one will see a bare body even if it is undressed for the donning of new clothes. The face is made up to look alive similar to the picture displayed in the memorial altar. In one scene, Daigo asked for the favorite lipstick of the departed.

Daigo the cellist brought to his job a musician's sense of control. His movements were elegant, almost theatrical, but showed compassion to the departed, and respect for those in grief.

The deliberate carefulness with which he cleansed and clothed the bodies--the transgender, the young girl who died in an accident, the grandmother, the operator of the baths, and his own father--reminded one of the Japanese art of gift wrapping. There was some sense of pattern, for example, in the way the hands were made to clasp together sometimes with Buddhist beads around them. Or, in the way of folding and arranging the sleeves of the kimono on the sides of the body. 

Certainly, the movie created some culture shock to the Filipino audience familiar with the business of dying in the country. There is no equivalent of the Japanese nokanshi; everything is left to the funeral parlor.

For his performance in the movie, Masahiro Motoki won four best actor awards in 2009: Asian Film, Japanese Academy, Blue Ribbon and Kinema Junpo. That year, Departures won the Oscar for the Best Foreign Language Film in the 81st Academy Awards, and ran away with ten of that year's Japanese Academy Awards including Best Actor and Best Director. 

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