It seems fair to say that we’ve all experienced a sense of loss in some form or another since March 2020. It may be literal in the form of a loved one passing or as an extended estrangement due to quarantining, or metaphorical as life as we knew it changed seemingly overnight. With loss comes the process of mourning, which takes many forms given how personal it is, though one’s culture or upbringing does offer a guide to how one may approach it. Specifically in the case of death, individuals often follow strict rules which the deceased believed in, providing a set of requests to dictate the burial process that might serve as a guide for those feeling overwhelmed with emotion. The older I’ve become, the more I’ve realized the strange dissonance between the notion of what one *should* feel versus what one does. In his directorial debut, director Jûzô Itami (Tampopo) explores this dissonance in his award-winning 1984 comedy The Funeral, now restored and packed with bonus materials from The Criterion Collection. Utilizing the very real customs and traditions of Japanese culture, Itami presents the public versus the private for audiences to observe within a fictional setting which incorporates various hijinks, promoting a personal rumination on life and death.
When 69-year-old Shokichi Amamiya (Hideji Otaki) dies suddenly, his widow Kikue (Kin Sugai) and their family gather together quickly to plan and execute a funeral service. Over the three day period that follows, his eldest daughter, Chizuko (Nobuko Miyamoto), and her husband, Wabisuke (Tsutomu Yamazaki), do everything they can to honor the passing of Shokichi as is the custom, while also dealing with a possibly jealous uncle, a surprising emotional reaction from Shokichi’s female friend, and Wabisuke’s own martial indiscretion.
Author Pico Iyer explains in his included essay, “At a Loss,” that much of what we see of the film, is accurate. So while American audiences might find it funny to see nurses run to the exit to see off the departing family, apologizing for being unable to do more, this is something that actually happens. Same thing with a Buddhist priest coming to the home to conduct lengthy prayer recitations. Even some scenes that feel like bits, as when Chizuko and Wabisuke watch a video on how to respond as the bereaved, are, in actually, not bits but real things that are available in order to ensure no breaches in protocol when mourning. The failure to understand the customs of the culture may cause foreign audiences to think Itami is making a mockery of the process, when, much of what’s funny about the film comes from the combat of the public versus the private. Take Chizuko and Wabisuke: the two are introduced to us as actors, wealthy enough to have a manager who handles much of their necessities as needed, who watch the video in order to learn their lines, more or less. It’s a performance they’re trying to nail, not a real presentation of emotion to anyone offering condolences. To be fair, the sequence does start with the pair watching the section about what mourners are supposed to say, so there’s an understanding that what the mourners say and how the bereaved respond is about creating a perception via an ordered production instead of a true presentation of emotion. The comedy comes in other places, such as watching children learn how to light and place the incense at the altar, how the children behave during any one of several services, or how all of the mourners lose feeling in their feet as the priest’s recitation seems to go on forever. In these moments, the real breaks through the fabricated version of things, allowing for authenticity to appear. So great is the need to maintain composure at all times, even among family, that when Wabisuke is seduced into having sex, I’d swear that the overlapping images of Chizuko standing upon a swing that she rocks back and forth is meant to demonstrate her awareness of what’s happening via an act that might cover up the sound of the activity in the woods. Again, the exploration of private versus public displays of emotion.
This may feel like an aside, but watching portions of The Funeral reminded me of the last time I was gathered with much of my family, particularly my father’s side: my grandfather’s funeral in March 2020. If you’re unfamiliar with a Jewish funeral, there’s a moment when mourners are offered an opportunity to use a shovel to throw dirt on the coffin, once lowered into the ground. I thought of this when Shokichi’s family is invited to partake in a ceremony of “hammering the nails” of the coffin using a rock. The idea is for each person to gently tap the first nail before an attendant seals the coffin. Each participant takes the stone, taps the nail, passes it, and moves on, mostly wordlessly, until one of the kids decides to offer a few waps, instead. It’s a silly moment, a break in decorum via the innocence of adolescence, which is quickly righted. In our ceremony, though it starts solemn, the participants in the service quiet in respect for the lost. Once the dirt is deposited in the gravesite, voices start to perk up as those at the gravesite begin to mingle. This is not such a stringent occasion that it’s frowned upon to feel some sort of levity, but there’s an obvious dissonance between the sense of what one should be (sad, upset, or bereft in some way) and what one is (joyous in the company of one’s own family). Because of this, especially watching the children play, unrestrained by the requirements of Japanese custom, I couldn’t help but think of my eldest (and then only son) as he played with his cousins, aware that his great-grandfather had passed but not being weighted by it. Itami doesn’t seem to use the children to convey a sense of life continuing, but more as a way to help satirize the disparity between the public and private emotions of adults.
For those well familiar with The Funeral, the interest in this review stems from wanting to know about the restoration and accompanying bonus features. According to the included booklet, the high-definition restoration for The Funeral was conducted by Itami Productions themselves with mastering completed by Pixelogic Media. There’s no information as to how the restoration was completed (what kind of negative, etc.), only that the film is presented in the original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. There’s no mention of how the sound was processed, either. This is an oddity as the technical information for the restoration process is typically included. Though that information is left out, this is a restoration that’s easy to recommend. The monaural sound comes through clearly, the dialogue crisp and without clipping or distortion. Similarly, the visual elements, while not as refined as some 4K restorations or even 4K UHD remasters, is still lovely with very little digital artifacts present, very little visible haze, and strong color balance.
As for the bonus features, the included booklet offers a fantastic essay from Iyer (referenced previously) that offers some fantastic context for those less familiar with Japanese death rites, a segment from Itami’s published shooting diary, an excerpt from a longer interview with actor Tsutomu Yamazaki discussing his working and personal relationship with Itami, as well as restoration information. As someone new to Itami’s work, the essay from Iyer is the part I found most fascinating for its ability to help reconfigure how I viewed The Funeral as a whole.
On-disc materials, per usual, are a different story. Home viewers are treated to a collection of materials new and old that total just over an hour. In the new category, there are two brand-new interviews that Criterion conducted in 2022: one with Itami’s wife and frequent collaborator Nobuko Miyamoto (Chizuko in the film) and one with Itami and Miyamoto’s son Manpei Ikeuchi (Jiro in the film). For approximately 42 minutes, home viewers learn about Itami through the lens of his family, as well as insight into The Funeral and his other works. Also on-disc is a previously released 2018 Criterion-produced short program, “Creative Marriages: Jûzô Itami & Nobuko Miyamoto,” that focuses on the collaborations between the Itami and Miyamoto. Finally, there are two trailers for the film, as well as six minutes of commercials Itami made for Ichiroku Tart, the company which helped finance The Funeral. Much like in the sole commercial shot in The Funeral as the introduction to Wabisuke and Chizuko, you can see the charm come through in these very real commercials that pre-date Itami’s feature-length debut.
The Funeral is a film which one must allow themselves to think on before passing judgement. It’s a film which is funny for the way it places the public against the private, not poking fun at the customs, but the way the customs seem to budge and battle against real emotion. It’s funny because of how life never stops, even when all we want for it to do is pause and hold so we can get our bearings. It’s a film which highlights the absurd moments of life (like trying to pass a sandwich between cars at high speed on a rainy road) against the seriousness and weight of existence (as when the characters are called over by the children to watch Shokichi’s body be cremated). Life is a series of dualities: strange and practical, delicate and violent, public and private — all of which Itami puts on display for us to observe and explore.
The Funeral Special Features:
- High-definition restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray
- New interview: Blurring Boundaries: Nobuko Miyamoto on The Funeral (26:03)
- New interview: A Sense of Comfort: Manpei Ikeuchi on The Funeral (16:00)
- Creative Marriages: Jûzô Itami & Nobuko Miyamoto, a 2018 short program produced by the Criterion Channel (10:53)
- Commercials for Ichiroku Tart by director Jûzô Itami (6:04)
- Two (2) Trailers (3:45)
- New English subtitle translation
- PLUS: An essay by author Pico Iyer and, for the Blu-ray, excerpts from Itami’s 1985 book Diary of “The Funeral” and from a 2007 remembrance of Itami by actor Tsutomu Yamazaki
- New cover by Tatsuro Kiuchi
Available on Blu-ray and DVD May 17th, 2022 from The Criterion Collection.