THE FUNERAL (Juzo Itami, 1984)

We need to tread lightly to grasp a culture other than our own. What, for instance, is the aim of the joke of a man’s death in the pre-credit sequence of writer-director Juzo Itami’s The Funeral (Ososhiki)? The boisterous gentleman, who is diabetic and not quite 70, secured that very day a positive report from his annual check-up; but, buoyed by this, instead of maintaining his diet, he celebrates by overindulging at dinner and suffers the massive heart attack that ends his life. The “joke,” then, is at the expense of human nature—or at the expense of this particular human’s nature, his recklessness. Many U.S. Americans, however, rightly or wrongly are likely to detect a needling of Japan’s system of socialized medical care. Is its presumed ineptitude contributing to the joke, contrary to the customary attribution of Japanese longevity to this system?
     Itami’s Funeral, his directorial debut, painstakingly details the three-day family event that includes the deceased’s burial. Hilarious, in the film’s first movement, with the exchange of sandwiches between two adjacent cars heading to the hospital morgue: the overhead shot, with wheels nearly touching, parodying the chariot race in Ben-Hur (William Wyler, 1959).
     My one complaint: the funereal underlighting of much of the film is sufficiently cozy to be a bit smug. Otherwise, as family secrets tumble out, it is a perfect comedy.
     The deceased’s daughter Chizuko and her husband, Wabisuke, both actors, are played by Nobuko Miyamoto, Itami’s wife, and Tsutomu Yamazaki (best actor, Kinema Junpo, Blue Ribbon, Japanese Academy Awards), who had been brilliant as the murderous medical student in Akira Kurosawa’s High and Low (1963), with both continuing as stars of Itami’s Tampopo (1986) and A Taxing Woman (1987). Ososhiki brought future suicide Itami best film, direction and screenwriting prizes.

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