Film as cultural lesson


POSTED: Tuesday, June 23, 2009

From Japan, the land of a million ceremonial rituals, comes yet another. Nokan, or “;encoffinment,”; is a kind of last-rites performance piece, with no real equivalent anywhere else. As mourners gather in a small audience and watch, a nokanshi tenderly cleans the body of the deceased—behind shrouds as artfully manipulated as a magic show—then makes up the dead person's face to look as alive as possible. The corpse is then dressed for the final voyage, placed in a silk-lined coffin, everyone says good-bye in their own way and the coffin and its inhabitant are cremated.

Cremations and coffins don't really go together on this side of the ocean, nor does the process of undertaking and corpse makeup as a spectator event. The ritual is central to the wonderful film “;Departures,”; now playing at the Kahala Theaters, from which international audiences are introduced to nokan. The ritual may seem odd, but the way in which we learn about it is one of the great social shifts of the last century.

Japan has its own rituals and customs, as does everyone, and film has become the great international cultural currency, offering everyone a look into the customs and mores of peoples vastly different from us, and yet—we discover—just as human.

Although sometimes films titter over the bizarre, like the “;Mondo Cane”; series, generally rituals and customs are simply presented as part of the narrative. Because it's such an immersive experience, film is how we learn about the world. It sticks. Filmmakers—particularly the socialist ones—realized this long ago, one of the reasons that performers like Charlie Chaplin resisted talkies. Language became a barrier rather than a connective device when movies learned to speak.

The world has since become more literate, and conversely, less dependent upon the printed word, and subtitles and dubbed films are commonplace. The technological mojo is so accepted we no longer even notice it. Instant translation is part of the grammar of filmmaking.

There are drawbacks, of course. As the communicative playing field becomes more level, there's a blanding of culture. Some view this as a threat—Iran switched off the ability to text-message last week in response to the spotlight on their botched elections—and others view it as an opportunity to propagandize.

“;Departures”; treads the cultural exhibitionism line lightly. Even many Japanese are not privy to the world of the nokanshi. The movie was hesitantly received in Japan when it was released, won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film two years ago, and this spring is getting a spirited international distribution.

It's quite a wonderful film, and despite the potentially gruesome subject matter, “;Departures”; is fascinating, emotionally charged and very, very funny.

IN A PHONE interview with director Yojiro Takita, he revealed that he had no idea how audiences would respond.

“;It was a long time in preparation, and we had to study the process of nokan,”; said Takita. “;My view was that people should live completely every day, to appreciate life at the same time that you face death.”;

The humor was deliberate, to draw audiences in and provide a release, said Takita, and it is often funnier when the subjects are so serious.

“;Also, nokan has a kind of performance aspect that was fascinating to a filmmaker. It is done in silence, with very elegant moves, before family members who are grieving, and we can watch them react.”;

Takita is a veteran director of dozens of films, and “;Departures”; is carefully lighted and scored to underscore its theme, the beauty and fragility of life and the acceptance of its passing nature. Curiously, Takita broke into the business cranking out “;pink films,”; another Japanese cultural oddity, soft-core porn films in which the sexual hydraulics are artfully hidden from the audience by foreground objects.

“;You adapt to tell the story the best way you can,”; chuckled Takita. “;Storytelling is storytelling.”;