Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Seeing Out the Departed

‘Corpse hotels’ offer dignity for the dead as Japan’s crematoriums struggle to keep up

The Japan Times  by Mizuho Aoki Staff Writer  Jun 14, 2016

Packed among houses and small factories in a semi-industrial area of Kawasaki, Sou Sou resembles a regular hotel. How it differs is that it serves the dead.

Dubbed an itai hoteru (corpse hotel), Sou Sou is a storage venue for bodies before they are taken to be cremated. It offers a private place for family members and other mourners to pay their respects.

In rapidly aging Japan, where most bodies are cremated, there are sometimes waiting lists at crematoriums. It can take a week or more before a slot is available, especially in urban areas.

For ¥9,000 per day, Sou Sou offers people a place for a body to stay and for relatives to spend time in mourning until a crematorium can take them.

“The business has been profitable,” said Hisao Takegishi, president of Sou Sou, adding that the occupancy rate was around 70 to 80 percent over the past year.

Bodies can be stored in morgues at crematoriums, but facilities there are little more than bleak, refrigerated locker rooms with limited visiting hours.

“It is far from an ideal place to mourn the loss of their loved ones,” said Takegishi, who worked as a funeral director for more than a decade. “I wanted to provide people with a place other than a morgue at crematoriums to mourn and relax, just like at home.”

At Sou Sou, families can decorate the rooms with flowers and memorabilia of the deceased. And although it is legally registered as a storage facility, families can spend the night if they wish, sleeping on couches and ordering out for food, Takegishi said.

Other businesses that provide similar services often offer comprehensive packages, ranging from simple storage to complete funeral packages.

In 2010, Nichiryoku Co., a Tokyo-based funeral service, opened hotel-like facilities named Lastel in Yokohama and Shin-Yokohama. The company’s vice president, Kimiaki Takemura, said the nine-story building in Shin-Yokohama is fully equipped with rooms to store bodies and also has funeral halls, banquet rooms, Buddhist altars and showrooms that display different types of coffins.

“Everything you need is in this building.” said Takemura. “Offering the whole package in one building is good for our business and also for the bereaved family.”

Customer numbers have been on the rise, but sales per client have declined a little due to people preferring smaller and simpler funerals, he said. He is optimistic that the trend will reverse: “I believe the needs will surely rise,” he said.

The National Institute of Population and Social Security Research has forecast the number of deaths to peak at 1.67 million by 2039, a nearly 30 percent increase from 2015.

Given this expected surge, Itaru Takeda, head of Kasouken, an association of cremation and funeral studies, said densely populated municipalities need to build more crematoriums.

Still, facilities where bodies can be cremated are difficult to build. They usually face strong opposition from residents. According to Takeda, some projects have been stalled for more than a decade.

Speeding up the rotation of incinerators may help solve the problem. But in Japan, rituals where final farewells are said and the ashes are placed into urns are culturally important, so facilities cannot operate like factories, Takeda said.

“When the population concentrates in small areas, we need to have welfare facilities to cater to residents’ needs from birth to death, such as hospitals, schools, nurseries and fire stations,” Takeda said. “A crematorium, too, is essential.”

He added: “Death is not something you encounter every day, so many tend to see crematoriums as something unrelated to their lives, but we really should think of it as a more imminent issue.”

Like crematoriums, corpse hotels usually face local opposition. Back in 2014, when Takegishi opened Sou Sou in Kawasaki, more than 100 local residents organized a campaign of resistance and demanded its closure.

“Their biggest argument was that the hotel was creepy. … Some said they couldn’t sleep knowing dead bodies were transported to and from the nearby building,” Takegishi said. One junior high school girl told him she was afraid that a ghost might creep into her room.

But Takegishi firmly believes his business helps the grieving process, soothing the bereaved.

“This facility is not enough to cater to the increasing needs. … I would welcome more people to enter the business, and I hope this will become one of many services relatives of the deceased can choose from.”

Two years on, banners opposing the hotel can still be seen hanging in the neighborhood. But after several local deaths — in which the families used the facility — sentiment is changing, Takegishi said.

“I believe I will eventually gain their acceptance,” he said.
When reading the above, I was reminded of a wonderful film called "Departures."  Watching this film was an eye-opening experience.  It gave a respectful and engrossing look at how the Japanese deal with the experience of the death of a loved one.

As one Amazon reviewer puts it:

Japanese films have always had the remarkable reputation of turning the simplest premise into something so full of moving emotions and sensibilities. Yojiro Takita's multi-award winning film "DEPARTURES" (2008) is no different. There is a lot of excessive hype surrounding the film as it has almost nearly swept the Japanese Academy awards and has been awarded the Best Foreign film honor in the recent 2009 Oscars. No film can live up to the hype it has gotten, but I have to say it has earned each and every recognition; well deserving of the commercial success it had achieved in its native land.

Daigo Kobayashi (Masahiro Motoki) is a cello player whose dream is shattered when the orchestra he is playing with goes broke. Left with no choice but to sell his prized cello, Daigo together with his wife Mika (beauteous Ryoko Hirosue) returns to his hometown to live in his mother's old house. In need of a new job, Daigo responds to an ad in the local paper for a job in "Departures", thinking that it may be related to travel. But much to his surprise and dismay, Daigo discovers that he had applied for a profession as an `Encofineer'; a man who performs the delicate and traditional Japanese ritual of preparing the bodies of the deceased for the departure to the next life--it pays quite well, and without even thinking about it, he accepts without even giving his wife the details of his new job.

It is not often that we become privy to a film about the beautifying of corpses, director Takita takes on the grim subject matter and gives it a commercial charm and appeal. The direction is quite meticulous in exposing the world of the mortician as we become witnesses to the Japanese customs and traditions as to how they deal with their dead. Takita shows that the profession demands a certain amount of sensitivity as we see the different reactions of those left behind by the deceased; some are angry, some are funny, most are overwhelmed by grief and some are curiously joyful. In Daigo's profession, there are no religious affiliation; they do what they do to preserve the memory of the deceased, remembering them as the way they used to be and not who they are in the present.

It is a safe bet that a premise such as this may be unusual even for Japanese audiences and one of the film's key to success is the way it executes its grim subject matter through some doses of subtle humor in the film's first act. Writer Kundo Koyama and the direction by Takita meticulously eases the premise into the audience, as we were privy to Daigo and Sasaki's encounter with an extra "thing" to a supposedly female corpse. We see Masahiro Motoki's deadpan humor as he becomes repulsed by his first job, and just how he eventually becomes comfortable with his new career. Takita cleverly illustrates the short moments in the ceremony that our morticians get to know the deceased quite intimately.

After everything sinks in, then the emotional scenes begin to take hold, as we learn more of Daigo's childhood, his problems with his wife's disapproval of his new job and his anger towards his father who had left him while he was a child to run off with a younger woman. Now this is a commercial film and we know that eventually people close to Daigo will eventually come to respect what he does for a living, it is a little predictable but the journey with which the film gets to where it wishes to go is well-played that the screenplay becomes somewhat of a melancholy with a rhythm that just looks so beautiful. Mika (played by Ryoko Hirosue) is just so lovable as the diligent wife; she is just so full of love and trust that her character represents the goodness within the Japanese woman. It was touching to see Daigo perform a ceremony in his wife's presence and director Takita carefully manipulates the camera work to show pure emotion. Takita also injects some sequences that are beautiful to awaken the emotion (sort of serves as a vanguard) as we see Daigo playing the cello on a hill as if he was reaching out again to his dreams. The film also has beautiful cinematography and emotion-inducing score to match its otherwise simple but grim premise to keep the film running at a brisk pace.

The film has two significant scenes that seemed to induce quite a few sniffles, they were injected to give a twist that plays a significant part in Daigo's life. The first one does provoke a lot of emotion; it is full of tear-inducing sequences that can definitely touch its audience. However, it does feel a little overlong that the second twist may lose some of the narrative impact to the inexperienced viewer. The two twists do work in unison in the screenplay but some may argue that Takita was working too hard to induce emotion working one twist right after the other. I didn't find anything wrong with it and I thought it stuck to its sensibilities in reflecting just how life can sometimes throw you in for a curve.

The performances are quite good, Motoki (who won best actor in Japan) and Hirosue has some dynamic chemistry between them and the supporting characters made up of Sasaki, Yuriko (co-employee played by Kimiko Yo) and the woman (Kazuko Yoshiyuki) who runs a bath house plays their own significance in the script. I loved the way Yamazaki played Sasaki, it was like a cool and quiet boss as he always seemed to say "its fine."

Despite some flaws in the screenplay that the film came dangerously close in becoming too sentimental, "Departures" is easily one of the best commercial films to come out from Japan. The last act will leave an impression that no matter how we see ourselves and others, death sometimes is the one thing that can bring a family together. The film's biggest ace would have to come from its ability to induce the proper emotion at the right minute with such simplicity. Such critical acclaim will no doubt raise the film to unreasonable expectations, and while it may not change the course of Japanese cinema, it is not pretentious and never hides behind its beautiful visual style. The way to approach this film is with tempered expectations, so that the film can touch you in its journey that is both surprising and pleasurable.

Highly Recommended! [4 ½ + Stars]

The release looks great and sounds great. The 1.78 ratio anamorphic widescreen video transfer is vivid and clean. It also has a 5.1 Dolby Digital Track Japanese language track. Subtitles are well timed and translated.

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