If there needs to be only one description of Yuzo Itami’s directing style, it would be “castigat ridendo mores” (criticise customs through humour), to borrow from the great Moliere. His sharp-witted observations on everyday incidents and uncompromising depiction of idiosyncrasies in the Japanese mentality are the keys to the revival of Japan’s stake in international cinema. Although Tampopo is Itami’s most well-known and critically acclaimed film, his first feature, “The Funeral”, is also a commendable achievement for its seamless blend of honesty, humour and quirkiness. Who would have expected that a two-hour film about the mundane funeral of an ordinary Japanese citizen could be chock full of so many great little moments without one false note?
The movie opens with the death of a grumpy old man who did not quite make it over the hurdle of a 70th birthday. His daughter and son-in-law, played by Tsutomu Yamazaki and Nobuko Miyamoto respectively, takes on the formidable task of holding a Buddhist funeral for him. The process extends over three days and involves many complicated protocols that would pose challenge to the uninitiated couple. Troubles ensue further with the arrival of the wife’s nitpicky uncle, who would argue with them over such points as the placement of the body and the appropriate payment to the priest. Choosing a funeral as the premise is a brave approach for Itami to touch on the generational gap between the stringent values embraced by old uncle and the callous modernism of the couple, and to a further extent, the oblivious children.
So you’ll ask: Where’s the laugh? Yamazaki’s impeccable comic timing and Miyamoto’s penchant for portraying “everywoman” role prove invaluable to Itami’s unpolished style. Besides, there are just too many moments which are crafted to perfection. A priest arrives in a Roll Royce car and receives the fee, which is politely referred as a donation. Two kids fool around during the priest’s prayer. The couple pick up tips from an instructional video entitled “The ABCs of a Funeral”. The husband enjoys a quickie with his secret lover in the forest while the wife is swinging back and forth on a hanging bench peacefully. Another hilarious scene shows the women’s desperate effort to disband the drunken group of men as they continue drinking through the night. The film, with its firm grip on accuracy and no-nonsense story-telling, strike a personal chord with me, who is not unfamiliar with Buddist funeral customs (except for the quickie).
Despite packing the film with numerous comic scenes, Itamo does not forget to pepper it with heartfelt moments. There are some point-of-view shots where the deceased is enlivened as a husband and father who at times mistreated his beloved women. Those frank scenes are not in the least bit a breach of “De mortuis nil nisi bonum”; instead, they add a humane side to a gentleman who has departed from this life free of regret and pain, and who “will see where he’s going in the afterlife”, as affectionately hoped by one of his relatives.