Okuribito, burakumin and lessons of forgiveness

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Most human societies and their respective religions have tried to cope with people’s sorrow and fears when dealing with death. The three big monotheistic religions imagined heaven as a place where the departed souls enjoy solace in the company of the Creator. Mahayana Buddhism, on the other hand, invented samsara or transmigration of the souls along the 6 existing worlds, depending on the person’s behavior when in the Earth as a human being. The Japanese accept the latter, adding a touch of animistic Shinto’s beliefs, especially the ones concerning the concept of impurity (death and everything in contact with it). Hollywood-awarded おくりびと Okuribito Departures, as well as the uniquely original あぶらくさすの際 Aburakusasu no Matsuri Festival of good and evil, explore funeral services, ceremonies and their implications for society.

The obsessive dedication of the Japanese to regulate かた kata the process of doing anything in most aspects of life extends to death ceremonies, where in the 49 days when a deceased person is to be judged for reincarnation, the bereaved families follow the Buddhist rituals in the most rigorous fashion, starting with the 死に水 shinimizu moistening the departed relative’s lips with wet chopsticks, following with the 湯灌 yukan washing mouth, nose and anus with hot water, the 経帷子 kyoukatabira white kimono, the 死に化粧 shinigeshou make-up, and so on. Indeed, those are Okuribito’s former cellist Daigo’s functions, whose role is masterly interpreted by Masahiro Motoki, although the actor’s physical appearance –and especially his pectorals in a couple of scenes- are more proper of the ex-teenage-idol that he was in the 80’s than of a tranquil musician retreating into the countryside with his plain and stereotypical Japanese wife.

Traditionally, those Buddhist mortician ceremonies used to be performed by an until-recently-discriminated Japanese minority, the so-called 部落民 burakumin, a kind of an under caste with origins from the Middle Ages and with jobs that had physical contact with the “impure” death of animals and people, i.e., butchers, executors, undertakers, leather tanners, etc. Although legal discrimination has disappeared, there’s still a strong social stigma about this minority (in the past also called 穢多 eta lots of filth) and their traditional jobs: the only mention of the more politically-correct word 被差別部落民 hisabetsu burakumin, is a taboo in the Japanese society. If you don’t believe me, try to get a clear opinion about the matter from a Japanese national. Still facing marriage and employment discrimination –the same way you don’t want your family involved with “impurity”, the possessive and paternal Japanese companies don’t want them around themselves-, at least from the 80’s it has become illegal to investigate a person’s ancestors’ origin so that the information can be used to discriminate him or her. However, until what point this prohibition is really enforced, nobody knows: in some cases, neighborhoods are so clearly associated with burakumin origins that a simple address can lead to the questioning of the candidate’s moral intrinsic value, as if it were a modern version of 16th and 17th century’s Spain, obsessed with “purity of blood”, free from Muslim and Jewish “filthiness”.

In Okuribito, when Daigo, the protagonist, suffers the rejection of one of his childhood friends, and his own wife abandons him when he refuses to stop performing such a “filthy and embarrassing job”, there is an implicit denounce of the still-alive prejudice and unmentionable taboo in 21st century’s Japan.
But in the hands of intelligent director Yojiro Takita, the reproach becomes a lesson when dedicated and caring Daigo shows friend and wife that there is nothing to be ashamed of in preparing the dead for funeral and cremation.

Housewife Mika has her own opportunity to redeem her previous bigotry introducing the other big theme in the movie, that of forgiveness, more related to the Christian tradition of sin in a free-of-will West than to indulgently-Buddhist but at the same time strict Japan, full of implicit and elaborated rules in most spheres of life. In Japan, when an individual leaves a group –whether it’s a school club, a cooking lesson or a company-, s/he is automatically frowned upon by the rest of the group members and the previous status of 内 uchi inside the group is switched to 外 soto, an outsider. In occasions, s/he is resentfully tagged as someone not having been able to endure hard times or having looked for his/her own benefit and not that of the group. But when the system where the individual is trying to escape from is the family, forgiveness is unimaginable, especially if there are children. Two stories of family abandonment are shown in this movie. A middle-aged woman working in the funeral parlor as a secretary laments her leaving behind a 6-year-old to run away with her lover, and explains that no matter how remorseful she is, forgiveness is out of the question: “会いたいに決まっているけど会えない Many times I thought of going and meet my grown-up son, but I just can’t”.

This movie shows us both the suffering and deeply ingrained psychological trauma of the abandoned child –stories like these ones are not uncommon in the recent Japanese cinema, 誰も知らない Daremo shiranai Nobody knows (Hirokazu Koreeda, 2004), 菊次郎の夏 Kikujiro no natsu Kikujiro’s summer (Takeshi Kitano, 1999)- but also the human side of those immature adults running away from a world of responsibilities and eventually regretting their behavior. To forgive someone, even for a serious affront or negligence, we first need to understand the person and the circumstances, and try to relativize the damage among all the good actions, including having given birth. And that is the implicit message in this touching film by Yojiro Takita, which will force you to make use of your Kleenex a few times while watching it, unless you are the insensitive type.

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