Directed by Yôjiro Takita, Okuribito is based on the novel Nôkanfû Nikki (納棺夫日記, lit. Diary of an undertaker) by Shinmon Aoki [ja] and tells the story of a young cellist who suddenly finds himself without a job and reluctantly accepts a position as an undertaker in his hometown, a small town in Yamagata Prefecture.
More a film about the meaning of life and human values than about death, it shows to the viewer both the Japanese customs in ceremonials held before and at the time of a person's funeral and also the concept of death as seen from the Buddhist viewpoint as merely a transition instead of an ending.
Takaya in the blog Cinema Novo, explains the philosophy behind the movie.
When they are born they need the help of a nurse.
When they die, they depart from this world after the undertaker has purified their body.
This time director Yôjiro Takita, who, in light comedy movies like Byôin he ikô [病院へ行こう, Let's Go to the Hospital (1990)], greatly portrayed the paradoxes of society, has here made a close up on the job of the undertaker who is present to supervise a person's funeral.
When [in another scene of the movie] the old man in charge of the crematorium at the funeral hall says “Death is a gate”, the real meaning of the undertaker’s role is shown.
whether “Departures” will commercially be successful in the US is another matter.
Nonetheless it is worthy of note that, in Japan, it made some people reflect on the meaning of life as in the case of Suiren, who describes her feelings about the movie immediately after watching it.
Let me write about Okuribito first, because I was deeply moved by it.
I laughed a lot but cried much more than I laughed. […] What moved me so much, I wonder..?
Some people might live their lives successfully. Others might live feeling lonely or with depression. Some life might be exciting. Others might be just ordinary. Whatever, every life should be blessed.
I felt, in this movie, that one's life is treated so tenderly, so warmly, and with respect.
Despite being based on a novel, which is usually considered better than its cinematographic counterpart, the movie has been appreciated also by those who read the original story, like the blogger Zero-agency.
Besides the excellent acting of Masahiro Motoki and Kimiko Yo, the passionate performance of Tsutomu Yamazaki makes this movie even more effective.
Besides, as the job blogger You points out, the movie highlights another important question common to many so called ‘developed’ countries, the difference between those professions considered desirable and those considered less so or even shameful.
They are not merely formal acts but have a deeper meaning and I believe that this is a main point made in the film.
When one friend of mine started to work as an undertaker, I remember I was shocked when I heard a mutual friend say “that's a job to do only if you don`t have any another choice!”
A doctor who looks after a person`s life until they die is praiseworthy while the job of someone who attends to their last rites is considered degraded which is weird. What I believe instead is that it's a job which should be done with pride.