The FuneralThe Funeral is the debut film from actor and director Juzo Itami, probably best known for his crazy food odyssey Tampopo. Like all of Itami’s films, The Funeral is, essentially, a social satire and though not as raucous as the later Tampopo it does a fine job of mixing a traditional comedy of manners with a poignant examination of end of life rituals. Full of naturalistic details, The Funeral is a surprisingly warm film that’s much more about laughter than tears.

Successful actress Chizuko suddenly gets a phonecall in the middle of a shoot to say that her father has died suddenly and unexpectedly. Her mother would appreciate it if they could hold the funeral her house and if Chizuko and her actor husband Wabisuke would take charge of the funeral arrangements. Wabisuke is extremely reluctant but eventually agrees letting himself in for a whole new world of complications as the couple find themselves negotiating on the price of coffins, organising food for a wake and trying to work out what the most appropriate “donation” for a priest is. That’s not to mention trying to accommodate the wishes of all the relatives who will also be descending on them for the duration of the funeral which will last three whole days….

Funerary customs are the sort of thing you just assume everybody knows to the point that it can be a little embarrassing if you find yourself in the situation of having to ask. Luckily there are trained professionals available to help organise the main structure of events but when it comes down to the small details – what you should say, where you should stand and for how long, who’s invited and who isn’t, things can get tricky. In one hilarious moment, Chizuko and Wabisuke find themselves watching a VHS tape entitled “The ABCs of Funerals” and taking notes furiously as if learning lines for a new play.

Suddenly everything is a complicated decision and everyone seems to have their own opinion on matters. Having successfully got hold of a coffin, the couple need to decide whether to take the body home first or transport it in the coffin as advised by their very helpful funeral director. The majority of the family are in favour of the comparatively simpler option of putting the body into the coffin now and leaving it that way but an older uncle seems quite distressed by this new fangled business and laments that they don’t do it like this back home.

Said older uncle and business tycoon continues to find fault with various things including the direction of North which he insists the deceased’s head should be facing causing him to stare at the coffin and walk around the house waving his arms trying to work out, literally, which way is up. However, he’s also responsible for one of the more shocking breaks with appropriate behaviour as he starts trying to stage direct the final goodbyes so he can get a good photo, at one point asking the grieving widow to just “hold it a second” and “maybe get a little closer to his face” while he snaps away trying to capture the moment. Mind you, he’s not the only one to throw the book of etiquette out of the window as most people would probably list inviting your mistress to the funeral of your wife’s father as one of the top ten things you should never do.

However, these moments of everyday lapses in morality are just one of the film’s charmingly naturalistic elements like the priest (played by veteran actor Chishu Ryu) arriving in a very expensive car and obsessing over a series of French tiles. From a collection of shoes in different sizes scattered outside the family home to the children’s morbid curiosity in checking out the furnace at the crematorium the film is shot through with the tiny details of everyday life that are likely to find recognition everywhere. In fact the brief period of time with the whole family assembled together before the funeral really begins could easily be any other springtime celebration rather than the solemn occasion that has brought them all together this time. Even the artsy black and white video shot by a friend of Wabesuki’s to document the event shows the family laughing together and the children playing happily even as they learn the proper way to light funerary incense.

Of course, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its share of sorrows too – the film is called The Funeral after all and the final funeral oration given by the grieving widow is likely to leave many viewers complaining of something in their eye (especially given the couple’s rather strained relationship in the early part of the film). However, as usual Itami successfully manages to avoid sticky sentimentality in favour of a warm, natural and most importantly funny exploration of family dynamics and social customs. Not as madcap or laugh out loud funny as some of Itami’s later work, The Funeral is nevertheless a wry and witty comedy that knows how to play a merry tune on your heartstrings.

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