Following his 2014 documentary -1287 which followed a woman suffering with terminal cancer, Ian Thomas Ash examines the process of dying, and its aftermath, from a more immediate perspective in Sending Off (おみおくり〜Sending Off〜, Omiokuri: Sending Off) which sees him accompany Dr. Kaoru Konta who provides palliative care for those, mostly very elderly, who are approaching the end of their lives and are otherwise being looked after at home by family members rather than in hospitals. 

While in the past it might have been much more normal to die at home and for ordinary people to be familiar with illness and death, it may now be more usual to be cared for by trained professionals at a medical facility. Most particularly in rural areas, however, that might mean being entirely removed from a local community with friends and relatives perhaps unable to be present as much as they would like and so elderly family members are largely looked after by loved ones. That sense of community is certainly something that the bereaved family at the first home are very grateful for, affirming that while people in the cities can be distant from each other, people will always come to help in the country and true their word, the house is filled with neighbours helping to prepare food at 8.30am the morning after an elderly relative passes peacefully in her sleep shortly after 2. 

At the second house, meanwhile, a son who has been painstakingly taking care of his elderly mother laments that he feels oppressed by the ritualistic elements of a traditional funeral but would be failing in his duty to give her a proper send off if he did not complete them properly. Mr. Endo had remained conflicted about telling his mother that her condition was terminal, helping to video some of her treatment himself, including a mobile bathing session and soothing ice afterwards so other relatives could see his mother enjoying her life even while its quality continued to decline, but admitting that he hopes her suffering will soon be over so that she can finally reunite with his late father. Mrs. Endo receives a typical Japanese Buddhist funeral in a local temple and is then cremated, the family participating in the traditional ritual of picking up the remaining bones with chopsticks and placing them carefully into an urn. Dr. Konta also attends the public memorial service and gives a eulogy, discussing her brief relationship with the late Mrs. Endo and remarking on her admiration for the Endo family. 

As she says, caring for those with no possibility of recovering can be emotionally difficult. Yet we often see her taking time to admire the beauty of nature whether in a well kept garden, field of flowers, or the landscape to and from appointments. She tries to do her best to offer care and advice not only to the patients but to those who are their primary care givers and will often be making difficult decisions on their behalf. One elderly couple she visits appear to be in quite good health and mostly able to look after themselves, but she worries that as they had no children and their other relatives, save a nephew they don’t seem keen to contact, are also elderly there is no one who they can call should one of them become seriously ill and unable to look after the other.  

Mr. Hata, meanwhile, has the opposite problem in that he is worried about leaving his wife behind when he dies especially he claims because she’s not so good at the practical stuff and he’s always taken care of that for her. Those familiar with Ian Thomas Ash’s work may already be acquainted with Mr. Hata as he became the subject of an ongoing social media project as Ash helped him reunite with the son he had lost contact with 30 years previously after separating from the child’s mother. “Regret and regret, sometimes enjoy life” is how Mr. Hata describes the business of living but declares himself satisfied with being happy in the moment, seeing this as a “happy ending” witnessing the cherry blossoms surrounded by people he loves. Capturing the process of dying as unobtrusively as possible and with absolute sensitivity, Ash can also be seen stepping in to help when needed while documenting both the highly ritualised processes of “sending off” a relative and the managing of grief which accompanies them. 

Sending Off is available to stream in the US until July 30 as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

Original trailer (dialogue free)

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