Friday, July 2, 2010
"Departures" (Japanese movie)
Last night we watched a movie recommended by my sister, Margaret, about a young cello player who loses his job when the orchestra is disbanded. Desperate, he returns to his rural hometown far from Tokyo and reluctantly takes a job as an "encasketer". What is an "encasketer," you may ask. For all my knowledge--albeit superficial--of Japanese culture, I have to admit that I've never heard of this practice. It entails the reverent preparation of the body for burial in full view of the mourners and placing it in the casket, at which point the funeral directors take over.
Watching the elaborate ceremony, I said to myself, "But I thought everyone in Japan was cremated." Surely they wouldn't go through all this and then cremate the body, but that's just what they did.
Although I'd never known about this old custom, I was proud to have guessed that the "boss," the apprentice encasketer, and the secretary were observing a new one. One scene shows them digging into a bucket of fried chicken with gusto. I said to Phil, "I'll bet it's Christmas." Sure enough, the camera pulled back, revealing a small Christmas tree with twinkling lights. It's the custom in Japan to order Kentucky fried chicken at Christmas because Colonel Sanders looks like Santa Claus.
Here's my guess about why the husband keeps his job a secret from his wife and why she freaks out when she learns the truth. The Japanese don't like to talk about it, but Japan retains the vestiges of a caste system. Members of this caste are called the "eta," or untouchables. No one knows how they came to be set apart, but some think they long ago took on the task of disposing of dead animals. The native religion, Shinto, makes a big deal out of ritual purity. Shoes are not allowed in the house, and a separate pair of slippers must be worn for trips to the bathroom. My guess is that anyone who handles a dead body is considered "unclean." When the wife finds out about her husband's work, she screams, "You're filthy!" and runs off to Tokyo. But that's not the end of this story, which is told with love and tenderness.