I had seen this film before and knew I wanted to watch it again for this purpose. It won an Oscar for best foreign film, and the friend I visited during our seminar actually worked on it! I remembered really appreciating its beauty, and when Professor Yasar spoke about Japanese film, I knew I needed to see it again, and I wanted to recommend it to our group. You can rent it on Amazon Prime, or watch for free on Tubi, which had a couple of short commercials, but not too annoying.
The story is of a cellist who loses his job and moves home to northern Japan to live in the house he inherited from his mother. When he arrives he finds a job as an assistant to a mortician. It is a difficult job for him at first, but through the film he learns to appreciate it.
One immediate huge cultural difference is that Japanese families are apparently present during the preparation of their loved one's body. This seems strange to the American way, but it's definitely interesting. Another interesting point is seeing different religious traditions in Japan, and how they hold different kinds of funerals.
One of the themes is the inevitability of death, and the respect everyone deserves in death or when dealing with the death of a loved one. In this film we see how many Japanese find death something to fear, or "unclean." Yet we also see how death is viewed as a gateway to the next life, and there is a theme of rebirth and redemption.
Another thing I noticed in the film was gender roles. The cellist's wife is incredibly supportive, agreeing cheerfully to the move, and always preparing elaborate dinners for the two of them. However, she doesn't know for a long time what her husband's work is, and when she finds out, she wants her husband to quit. She is upset that he has hidden this work from her, and she doesn't want him to do it.
Another gender issue comes up when they go to prepare a dead girl and find out she's a male. The family knows this, obviously, but is struggling to come to grips wth this reality.
I saw again here how the limited dialogue, slower pacing, and use of scenery and open space really set a tone for the film, just as others we saw or discussed.
This film could be used in a middle school classroom, but I think it would be a hard sell. It would work better for older students. I highly recommend it.