A feel-good pic about a mortician? This award-winner from Japan (including Mr. Oscar®), proves the point in an honestly likable, life-affirming manner. Masahiro Motoki is just great as the classical ‘cellist who needs to find a whole new profession after his orchestra goes broke. He and his wife move to his old hometown where he accidentally falls into a new line of work: assistant to an old-school Japanese mortician/body preparer. The subject matter sounds like a total non-starter, and the film is perhaps too scared of its touchy subject matter, adding some easy black humor & awkward/funny situations to get us past any initial discomfort level. But once it begins to trust in our natural interest, the Japanese customs of preparing the dead for cremation, which take place in front of relatives during the funeral ceremony, are shown in fascinating non-invasive, non-gruesome detail. With its stately rhythms & unexpected theatricality, the gentle ritual almost looks like a magician’s levitation act. The supporting players are all wonderfully flavorsome types, especially Motoki’s elderly mentor who holds to a sly deadpan manner Walter Matthau & Jack Soo might have envied. It’s a quiet film, a nice film, perhaps a little too neat for its own good. But its final sequence of personal reclamation & forgiveness easily earns the display of honest sentiment. Yôjirô Takita stages everything simply and keeps the pace from bogging down (no small thing considering the subject matter), and the tech elements are stylishly handled. A pity that Joe Hisaishi’s original theme has such an echo of "Danny Boy’ to it, but this is nitpicking. NOTE: This film rates a ‘Family Friendly’ tab, so here's a quick reminder that this does not necessarily designate a ‘kiddie’ pic. It’s meant to point out a film the whole family could profitably watch together. Assuming, of course, that the described subject matter is considered age appropriate. Just be sure everyone is aware that the dead bodies in this film are NOT love-struck vampires.
DOUBLE-BILL: A subplot about an elderly woman who runs a public bathhouse in a fast changing neighborhood is reminiscent of XIZAO/SHOWER/’99, an even better family drama pic (from Hong Kong) about a father who also runs a traditional bathhouse with his retarded son, and the out-of-town son who wants to sell the old place.