When people hear the name Juzo Itami, most people will think about his legendary erotically charged Noodle Western Tampopo (1985) or his comical exploration of the life of a tax-investor in A Taxing Woman (1987). Less people will think of Itami’s first feature film, The Funeral (1984), which was based on his experience as a mourner at the funeral of his wife’s father.
One night, Shokichi Amamiya (Hideji Otaki), just considered healthy by the doctors at his health check-up, collapses and dies of a heart attack. The responsibility to organize the funeral falls upon his eldest daughter Chizuko (Nobuko Miyamoto) and son-in-law Wabisuke Inoue (Tsutomu Yamazaki). As both have never organized such strict ceremonial event, they are full of doubts. Luckily, an efficient undertaker is there to guide them every step of the way.
With The Funeral, Juzo Itami, as if he was a documentarian, provides a detailed exploration of the preparations of a traditional Japanese Buddhist funeral. The narrative does not only explore the general structure of a Buddhist funeral – from death, to the wake, the actual funeral service and, ultimately the cremation – and the aspect of ‘ceremonialized’ interactions (e.g. between the nurses and the widow), but also on the more hidden ceremonial aspects like the placing of tabi and zōri—traditional Japanese footwear—on the deceased feet and the placement of the coffin in such a way that the deceased head points north (General-note 1).
But Itami’s detailed and rich exploration of the ins and outs of a Japanese funeral is not simply an exploration that subtly touches upon the intersections between sexuality, life, death, (money) and food. This meticulous examination, which, despite always being interesting, sometimes drags a bit, also allows Juzo Itami to subtly touch upon a certain conflict within Japanese society: the conflict between tradition and modernity (General-note 2).
The sudden obligation to organize such highly ritualized funeral, as formed and structured by Buddhist religious traditions, leaves Chizuko and Wabisuke, both children of Japanese modernity, at a loss. Their reality is so different from the ritualistic world of Buddhist rites that they, in their attempt to do the funeral like it should be, feel beleaguered by all sorts of questions, e.g. what to do when the priest (Chishu Ryu) arrives, how much do you donate to the priest for his services, … etc. All these questions eventually lead them to check out a self-help video called The ABC’s of a Funeral.
The beauty of The Funeral is that, despite its more slapstick elements and moments of situational and interactional humor, it is not a pure comedy (Narra-note 1, narra-note 2). Itami’s narrative is, in truth, a subtle genre-blender. The most evident genre-excursions concerns the thriller and the action genre. The former is evident in the scene where the father, with pain in his chest, is trying to crawl outside and the latter is sensible in the scene where Wabisuke Inoue, while driving, tries to pass some food from his car to a driver in another car.
But one cannot say that the subtle blending of genres does not serve the comical dimension of the narrative. As the examples above highlight, Itami’s genre-blending is always characterized by a certain absurdity. It is, in truth, by subtly playing with genres that Itami ensures that his narrative remains lighthearted.
While Itami’s The Funeral offers a pleasing mix of static and moving shots, it is not this mix as such that ensures our enjoyment. What ensures our enjoyment, i.e. our laughter, is the way Itami has composed his narrative. Itami, with his fine comedic sense, knows how to combine shots to make the comedy truly effective. Besides demonstrating his fine sense of comedy with The Funeral, Itami also shows off his visual artistic sense. While Itami’s artistic sense of shot-composition is already evident from the way he utilizes geometry, it is nevertheless most sensible in the way he employs cinematographic movement.
What makes The Funeral so enjoyable is not only the fact that Itami’s narrative provides a detailed and informative exploration of the Buddhist funeral rites, but that it explores this tradition in a lighthearted way. While The Funeral is not Itami’s most accomplished narrative, it is already evident that his composing hand, besides being effective in provoking laughter, is also successful in aesthetically pleasing the spectator’s eye. Watching a funeral has, in fact, never been more pleasant.
General-note 1: While spectators without any knowledge of Japanese can enjoy this narrative, they will nevertheless, due to Itami’s emphasis on ritualized interactions, miss some of the finer and more subtle aspects of his exploration.
General-note 2: One of the main reasons why Itami’s debut-narrative was such an enormous success in Japan is, in our view, because Itami, with his well-structured and thought-out script, staged the conflict between tradition and modernity in such a recognizable way for the Japanese spectator. He succeeded, in other words, in showing, in a lighthearted but believable way, the very struggles tradition poses for the modernized Japanese subject.
This aspect might also explain why The Funeral is not able to really resonate at a deeper level with international audiences who have no knowledge whatsoever of Japanese traditions.
Narra-note 1: One of the most fun moments in the narrative occurs in the scene of the wake. In this scene, Itami points out, in a way that is as serene as it is comical, the difficulty of remaining in seiza-sitting-position.
Narra-note 2: Another comedic highlight – a fine slice of black humour – occurs in the scene where Wabisuke, at the crematorium, interviews the cremator, the one responsible for the handling of the oven.