The Funeral (Ososhiki) 

Japan (1984) Dir. Juzo Itami

Nobody likes funerals. If they do, they are morbid weirdoes. Funerals are not meant to be enjoyed, though many put a positive spin on it by assuring us it is a celebration of the deceased. This has not stopped cinema from trying to find comic capital in this solemn ceremony though.

69 year-old Shinkichi Amamiya (Hideji Otaki) dies of a heart attack with long-suffering wife Kikue (Kin Sugai) by his side. Being old herself, Kikue calls upon eldest daughter Chizuko (Nobuko Miyamoto) and son-in-law Wabisuke (Tsutomu Yamazaki), to organize the funeral to be hold at her house in the country. Wabisuke is reluctant but Chizuko talks him around.

However, as neither has arranged a funeral before, they find it a challenging process, not in the least when the family members arrive en masse to attend, filing up the house rather quickly. Then there are the usual arrangements, such as buying the coffin, and the fact Kikue wants a traditional funeral, which the younger bourgeois family members know nothing about.

Juzo Itami made his directorial debut with The Funeral after 20 plus years as an actor, going on to make a series of well-received, successful quirky comedies before his death by either suicide or murder in 1997. I’ve not seen anything of Itami’s work but I get the impression from this maiden voyage that he is someone who thinks the social mores of Japanese society are ripe for ridiculing.

Like a more cynical, cheekier Ozu, Itami gives us a glimpse into a typical family scenario, where much of the general gist will resonate on some level as being familiar; it is the distinct Japanese setting that makes this a fascinating viewing experience. Funerals have been featured in many Asian films before, so seasoned viewers will have a rough idea of what to expect; in this case, Itami lifts the curtain on the details of the preparation with a wry eye.

One of the first things we learn is for Buddhist funerals it is a three-day affair, broken down into one stage per day. First, there is the visitation where the body lies in state for mourners to pass through and pay their respects; day two is the wake, so they booze it up early; and finally, the actual funeral and burial or cremation takes place on the third day.

The funeral being in the country means a long drive from Tokyo, for Chizuko, Wabisuke and their two sons. Tagging along, is Satomi (Ichiro Zaitsu), manager of Chizuro and Wabisuke, who does most of the work with the preparations with local undertaker Ebihara (Nekohachi Edoya). Sent down to help are Aoki (Takashi Tsumura) and Yoshiko (Haruna Takase) – the latter being a tactless presence through her affair with Wabisuke, implying his hesitance to host the funeral may have been due to Yoshiko.

Family members are always a problem, just from being who they are, whether they meant to or not. Shinkichi’s last surviving older brother Shokicki (Hideji Ôtaki), is a rich businessman but tight with his money. He is also fastidious and hidebound to the old ways, voicing his opinion about how his brother’s body should be handled, ensuring his head is facing the west. Whether by design, his grief is marginalised in favour of Chizuko and Kikue’s, which seems cruel.

What we can’t accuse Itami of being is cruel. He may be picking at the mores of his own culture’s social etiquette but there is nothing mean spirited about it. There are a lot of issues Itami has put under the microscope as we have already discussed, and seems to be asking “why” things are so and challenges “just because” as an answer, even with a funeral being the main conceit.

A rare savage moment is found early on when Chizuko and Wabisuke watch a video (this was 1984) called The ABC’s of A Funeral to learn the proper do’s and don’ts of hosting and attending a funeral. The scary thing is that this might be a joke but it is also a very Japanese thing to do – or would be if YouTube didn’t exist today and there is bound to be such a clip available of this nature somewhere.

Because Japan’s countryside is still traditional, it is only the occasional dodgy hairstyle and the sight of a huge cathode ray TV that exposes the film’s age, otherwise it could have been made in the last five years. Itami avoids flash in his presentation which also helps defy its age, but still finds room for some visual treats – one includes a bizarre sandwich sharing scene as two cars are driving down a rainy road, which is filmed like a taut car chase.

Elsewhere, Itami uses Aoki and his wandering camera to cut down the quotidian stuff but still show it in a palatable way, via short film he made on the preparations, telling a nice little story in two minutes in a silent black & white interlude. Fortunately for Itami, he can rely of his wife Nobuko Miyamoto to lead a strong cast to do his bidding, everyone fully immersing themselves in the naturalism required to make this a touching, pathos heavy effort.

If there is a caveat, it is the humour can often be too subtle and is likely to be missed. I don’t know if I enjoyed it completely as a comedy with only a few moments I recognised as satirical. I’m sure the few on the nose moments will work for more people but they are rare. However, I enjoyed it more as a look into an aspect of Japanese culture I’ve only seen snapshots of, with a powerful denouement I didn’t see coming.

Maybe The Funeral needs a few more watches for me to appreciate it on the same level others have, but it has something about it that I can see why people like it so much, and that is because it feels real and relatable.

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