Japanese filmmaker Juzo Itami got edgier as his directing career grew. Just think about Tampopo or A Taxing Woman. In those movies, his humor can be sardonic to the point of serrated as he grins at a Japan co-opted by the West.
But in his first picture, The Funeral, Itami was more subdued, even reflective. The 1984 serio-comedy (available on DVD or streaming video) is reined in, as if Itami is trying very hard to be thoughtful.
Early Taste of Itami’s Wit
That goes against Itami’s mischievous impulses, which tend to make a film like Tampopo such a hoot. The Funeral isn’t as good (or as extravagantly funny) as what came later, but it’s still witty and enjoyable.
It’s revealing too; in fact, it may be one of Itami’s most exploratory offerings. The world he looks at is very small (what happens when a hip couple must hold a funeral, old Japan-style), but with fine details. Sometimes they add up in ho-hum ways, but mostly they’re interesting as little documents of the Japanese culture.
A familiar theme, one the new wing of Japanese filmmakers routinely turned to in the ’80s, is how the middle-class struggles to maintain traditions while devouring everything from the West, especially the United States.
Itami uses a funeral as his whimsical centerpiece. All the events leading to the wake and actual funeral are highly idealized and marked by long-held customs, a fact that perplexes Wabisuke (Tsutomu Yamazaki) and Chizuko (Nobuko Miyamoto), a prosperous young couple who must take care of the remains of Chizuko’s father.
A Funeral Unfolds. Or does it?
The ritual is precise and requires conformity, but the two are beleaguered by all sorts of questions. Where do you get a Shinto priest to say the correct prayers? How much do you pay after he’s found? How do you arrange the ceremonial incense? What do you say to mourners? What about that symbolic gesture of hammering a nail in the coffin? Do you bang it once, twice or three times?
Wabisuke and Chizuko even turn to a self-help video, “The ABCs of a Funeral,” for advice. It’s a giddy scene as they memorize just the right things to tell family and friends; Chizuko, a practical wife if ever there was one, is relieved when she finds a brief platitude that the video’s narrator assures will fit every occasion. “Nice and short,” Chizuko chirps. “That’s for me!”
Cremation – A Touching Passage.
There are patches in The Funeral that drag on, especially when Itami dwells on not-so-interesting characters, such as a pal of Wabisuke’s who wants to film the whole affair. But just when the movie’s pace barely jogs, Itami tosses in some dash, like the video scene or a touching speech by the dead man’s wife (Kin Sugai) or the strange visit to a crematory.
In that passage, an assistant suddenly confesses how he’s plagued by nightmares of corpses coming alive, just as the flames engulf them. But then he gathers himself and describes how babies have to be cremated gently, almost with an artist’s touch. The scene isn’t ghoulish at all; it’s oddly humane.
Director’s cue: If you enjoyed this, then you might be interested in Naked by Mike Leigh.