“The Funeral” is the debut film from actor and director Juzo Itami, who is perhaps best known for his ‘noodle western’ “Tampopo” (as of this writing, still a hard-to-find title for North Americans). In his first work, he creates a warm and multi-layered comedy that embraces the very human quirks and traits of its characters as they gather together and support each other in the shadow of tragedy.
Tsutomu Yamazaki, who often collaborated with Itami and recently appeared in the Academy Award-winning “Departures” (which contains a healthy number of similarities to “The Funeral”), stars as Wabisuke Inoue, who, along with his wife, makes his living as a television actor. In the opening scene, his wife’s father suffers from a heart attack and soon afterward dies. After deciding to hold the funeral at the deceased’s home in Izu, Inoue and his wife gather with a multitude of friends and family members to plan and carry out the funeral. This turns out to be quite a formidable task, as the film chronicles the many stages of the long, complicated and emotionally trying three-day process of properly sending off the departed loved one.
The premise of “The Funeral” fully enables Itami to show how ill-prepared the younger generation is when suddenly faced with the traditional practices and protocol of a Buddhist ceremony. The process involves such challenges as deciding what kind of coffin to buy and how much to pay the Jodo priest (the fee is politely referred to as a ‘donation’). Potential trouble crops up early in the form of the dead man’s older brother, who nit-picks and debates such points as the placement of the body (he wants it placed in bed upon arrival while the other family members want it kept in the coffin) and its position in the room in relation to the cardinal directions. Inoue and his wife manage as best they can during the proceedings, at one point picking up tips from an instructional video entitled “The ABCs of a Funeral”. Yet, even though the characters aren’t always as confident in following the ways of tradition, they are at least brought closer together in the jumble of events and emotions brought about by the ceremony.
The film is chock full of great little scenes and moments. A nighttime road trip through a rainstorm to retrieve the body leads to a high speed food exchange between two vehicles. During the priest’s prayers, the camera freely wanders and captures a slew of details: several family members cross and adjust their feet, two kids grapple with each other and, finally, a telephone rings at exactly the wrong moment. At one point, Yamazaki’s protagonist enjoys a quickie in the forest surrounding the house with a lover in the film’s most outrageous scene, which is edited to perfection as it cuts between their moment of passion and a young woman swinging back and forth on a hanging bench in a steady, all-too-suggestive rhythm. Another wonderfully composed scene depicts the women’s desperate efforts to dissolve the increasingly rowdy group of men as they drink sake into the night.
Between the many comical moments, Itami also makes sure to slow down and acknowledge the deeply felt emotional effects of the funeral on the gathered people. There are many point-of-view shots from the deceased’s perspective as the family members gather around him and regard the man they knew (someone affectionately places his glasses back on his face, “so he can see where he’s going”). A home movie sequence candidly shows the family enjoying some light moments together as they see to their assorted duties. Itami also uses many long takes that show the gathered guests as they patiently see each part of the ceremony through to the end. The scene most likely to draw tears from viewers is the one in which the new widow speaks about her husband’s last moments and the fear of being lonely in the time of one’s death.
“The Funeral” is a commendable achievement simply because of the way in which it accurately reflects the many emotions, pressures and necessary details that arise during an event such as a funeral. With its humanistic tone and observance of the fate of cultural values in the contemporary world, it seamlessly merges honesty and humor in an insightful and heart-felt package.