Masahiro Motoki was initially hesitant to take on the role of an undertaker in Yojiro Takita's Departures. Now he's thanking his lucky stars that he did. The film has won much international acclaim, including a best foreign-language film Oscar, and led to Motoki, 43, winning the best actor award at the third Asian Film Awards held in Hong Kong on Monday. In the film, Motoki (left) plays cellist Daigo, who takes a job at a funeral home after his orchestra is disbanded, preparing corpses for burial as an apprentice to a 'nokanshi' (undertaker). 'When I first read about what an undertaker does, I thought it was a profession in the shadows,' Motoki said. But after meeting some funeral directors and watching them work, the actor began to understand that, far from being an undignified job, it was a 'highly respectable' profession that gave practitioners 'a great sense of satisfaction'. It also gave him the motivation he needed to pursue the role. 'When I went to the mortuary, I helped clean the body of an elderly woman. That's when the whole profession became very real to me, which in turn helped me internalise my character.' Motoki also discovered that it's actually not an unpopular job. He said in Japan there are many young people, including women, involved in the funeral business and that this is a good thing. 'I believe living close with death when you are young makes you appreciate your life more,' he said, adding, tongue in cheek, that Japan's funeral industry has excellent long-term prospects owing to the country's ageing society. Motoki also said there are many differences between the fictional funeral industry depicted in the film and how it operates in real life. In the film, for example, Daigo does not need much instruction before he becomes an undertaker, but in real life a great deal more training is required and the work is much more difficult.'It is not as fancy as it is portrayed in the film,' he said. Motoki said he now has an idea of what a 'perfect funeral' might be. 'There are many different kinds of funeral arrangements in Japan nowadays. Some people choose to be buried in cemeteries, some people want to be cremated and have their ashes scattered at sea. 'For me, I am quite fascinated by the idea of a 'tree burial', which involves burying the deceased in the woods and mourners then seed in their favourite plants above. Then when your friends go hiking, they can remember you.' The success of Departures, which beat Ari Folman's Waltz With Bashir and Laurent Cantet's The Class, to win the best foreign-language Oscar, took many people by surprise. Motoki has his own theory as to why the film did so well. 'In the foreign-language film category, each of the competing films has a universal theme: the German film (The Baader Meinhof Complex) is about terrorism, the French movie (The Class) is about assimilation, ours is about death, Austria's (Revanche) is about crime and Israel's (Waltz With Bashir) is about war. They all have very serious themes. 'But the thing is, we are all suffering because of global recession at the moment. People are already tired of the situation. All of the other films were trying to address serious issues and so was ours, but we did it in a subtler way with a softer approach to a serious topic - death. People who are sick of the economic situation have found our film rather refreshing and, to a degree, healing,' he said. The film has brought Motoki much recognition - he was also named best actor at the Japanese Academy Awards and the country's Blue Ribbon Awards, Japan's two top film awards. Motoki, who started out as a pop idol in Johnny & Associates' boy band Shibugaki Tai, described the opportunity as 'incredible' but said he had no intention of pursuing a career in Hollywood. 'It may be a clich?but I am not trying to make myself an international star,' he said. 'I believe making a good movie is like making a good piece of music. All I am trying to do is to turn a story into a universal language that everyone can understand.'