Death stands at the center of life in Japan. In every last household here, the departed enjoy pride of place, their framed portraits and memorial tablets serving as shrines of a sort. My Japanese wife, like most of our neighbors, sets out fresh food and tea for her long-dead parents every morning and regularly travels two hours, by bus and three trains, to the family grave, where she fills in her late grandmother on the news of the week. Even after a funeral is concluded, the priest will return to the house, at prescribed intervals, again and again for years to come, and each time, family members are expected to travel long distances, dressed in black, to listen to high-speed, more or less indecipherable chanting.
Death is also very big business in Japan. That Buddhist priest gets paid handsomely for each of his pro forma visits. Headstones can cost up to $20,000, and the living are urged to purchase a Buddhist name to protect a departed loved one in the afterworld. Even the least expensive options can set them back thousands of dollars. Everyone I know invests in a sleek and well-organized three-day set of funerary rites that can easily cost more than a new Toyota.
Like most of us during the pandemic, I have felt death breathing very close to me, for season after season, often waiting to greet me suddenly around the next corner. And with many of my elders reaching their 90s, the end is no longer an abstraction. Twice in recent months, I’ve found myself in the same light-filled church, watching slides click over to the sound of half-wistful music as I play host at memorial services. In Kyoto, where I have based myself for 34 years now, I have attended funerals for my father-in-law, my mother-in-law, and my wife’s uncle. Yet the proximity of death has also made me more grateful than ever for life—for health and sunshine and a new day—as I take less and less for granted.
So perhaps it’s no surprise that I’ve turned for companionship (and comic relief) to the classic movie Ososhiki (The Funeral ), about a husband and wife who organize the funeral of the wife’s father. Juzo Itami, already famous in Japan for his acting, often on TV, made the film in 1984. Son of a well-known director of mock-samurai films, Itami couldn’t help but relish the way death dramatizes the treacherous gap that separates public emotion from real feeling, in Japan perhaps more than anywhere. Every time I experience a death in Kyoto, I don’t know how much to be impressed, how much startled by the part-joyful, part-mournful routine that follows: we all enjoy a lavish dinner with the dead body in our midst, taking care to serve the corpse beer and its favorite kind of sushi. Then, after the cremation, we fumble with chopsticks to pick out the bones, which professionals at the funeral home have thoughtfully laid out in the shape of a human skeleton.
When Itami shot The Funeral, his directorial debut, at the age of 51, he had just suffered his own loss: the death, a year earlier, of his father-in-law. Collaborating as he often did with his wife, Nobuku Miyamoto—who plays Chizuko in the film, wife to Tsutomu Yamazaki’s Wabisuke—Itami put together 20 pages of notes on the experience before co-financing his picture. He then made The Funeral in the country home that he and his wife shared, and he included their son Manpei Ikeuchi in the role of Jiro.
What many an innocent Western viewer might take to be broad comedy, therefore, is in fact often unvarnished realism. The nurses at every Japanese hospital really do rush to the exit and bow with apologies as a corpse departs, just as in the film. We really do have to scatter purifying salt all over our dark clothes before we can enter a house after a cremation. I really did, like the kids in the movie, have to practice how to place sticks of incense in a bed of ash after my father-in-law passed away. And though the fee for the hospital stay in The Funeral is laughably low—around $140 at the time—the price of everything else is shockingly high.
Above all, everyone in Japan who loses a loved one will likely want to consult a tape on “Etiquette and Ritual,” as the central couple does in The Funeral. As with every interaction in this deeply rite-bound society, there really is a correct way to stand, to speak, to bow, and to deliver a series of lines that have been deemed appropriate. When my son got married in Tokyo, I spent days trying to memorize the words I’d been given, just the way Wabisuke in Itami’s film attempts to do after his sudden loss. Funerals are the time when the most inappropriate memories rise to the top, as Graham Greene notes in Travels With My Aunt, along with the most improbable questions: Will the oven doors open? Will the coffin stick on the way to the flames?
Foreign friends are often surprised, on arriving in Japan, to learn that there are completely separate words for the self you’re expected to be in public (tatemae) and the one who exists behind closed doors (honne). And of course at a funeral, when the most private emotions are suddenly thrown open to the world, it’s not hard to end up caught in the middle. For someone with Itami’s irreverent spirit, a wake is the perfect chance to see people struggle to express dignified and proper emotions when they don’t feel dignified at all. They know what they’re meant to say, but they’re always fluffing their lines. An associate promises to do “anything to help” the mourning couple in The Funeral, even as he’s dressed in a jaunty summer hat and poking at the sleeping Wabisuke with a Scoopic 16mm camera. Relatives offer condolences, but only after bustling in amid hectic cries of “You brought the cat?”
This is far indeed from the world of Yasujiro Ozu, the restrained and often melancholy master filmmaker of a generation before; in an Ozu film, even a wedding often features the sorrowful exchanges and dark suits of a funeral. When, in Itami’s film, a character looks out to sea—much as in a central scene after an elder’s death in Ozu’s Tokyo Story—and intones, “The day will turn into night,” it comes across in context as pretty close to nonsense.
Indeed, with his constant Western touches (a worldly priest steps out of a white Rolls-Royce), the first-time (English-fluent) filmmaker might be gleefully announcing his distance from the Ozu style of old. The mailboxes in the leafy resort town where the action is set, the rock ’n’ roll blasting out of a car radio, the undertaker dressed in beret and shades (after dark), even the sandwiches—the sandwiches!—all speak of a bright postwar America at comical odds with Japan’s classical obsequies. Shot in bold colors and often in alarmingly intrusive close-up, the film begins by showing us an avocado in graphic detail and then summons music worthy of a Hitchcock thriller. As a brother of the deceased recites the pitiless Heart Sutra—“Gone, gone, gone to the other shore …”—two kids cavort around the room before a cat stretches and claws at the tatami.
The distance between what we say and what we feel has been a reliable source of humor, of course, from as far back as Boccaccio and Molière. And in The Funeral, we see the main couple acting in a frothy TV commercial, just seconds before news of the death arrives. “Look how easy it can be to create a heartwarming work of art,” trills the jingle in the ad, and soon we’re noticing that the professional actress at the heart of the spot is dressed in a different outfit in almost every scene that follows, as if life itself were simply a series of roles. Again and again, Itami punctures the high seriousness of the setting with zestily broad strokes worthy of a TV drama, informing us early on that the departed was once in fact a brothel owner, and on occasion showing us the grieving from the point of view of the corpse.
For me, though, what looks to be gleeful and antic mockery abruptly acquires another dimension—becomes something more than just guffawing entertainment—near the film’s midpoint, when out of nowhere we get a delicious, four-minute montage that sets sonorous Bach against the all-too-human details of real life, caught in a kind of black-and-white home movie. Knockabout scenes continue—Wabisuke will soon lose his trousers, more or less literally, and revelers show no eagerness to say goodbye to bottles of free sake—but these moments rub against something more visceral, even primal, which complicates our responses and, rather wonderfully, leaves us, like the characters, ever more uncertain how to respond.
This is what funerals mean, at heart, in every culture and century: we want to be bright and positive even as we sometimes long to cry. We call a memorial a “celebration of life” and then wonder how much we should whitewash the loss. None of us knows what to say to the bereft—and, very often, whatever our intentions, everything we say turns out to be the wrong thing. All of us feel like actors at a funeral, at once eager to say the right thing and knowing that we can never give voice to the unspeakable. We’re determined to remain true to something real yet in the same breath committed to not bruising the already wide-open sensitivities of the mourners. My own mother died in California last summer, and several of us had to balance a sense of release—at last she was out of her pain (as we were freed from our anxieties about her)—against the very real sadness that we also felt. Every response seemed partial and maybe a little beside the point.
This may well be the ultimate strength of a film that becomes ever more difficult to place or define. As the action unfolds, more and more secrets slip out, and some of them are the opposite of dirty: the elderly characters we’ve laughed at or ignored suddenly rise to an unexpected eloquence, and—as in every funeral, perhaps—someone who seems to have scant connection with the dead person breaks into uncontrollable sobs even as those closest to him privately worry that they’re not feeling enough. In perhaps the central scene of the whole production, every last vestige of formality is stripped away as an almost bestial moment in a forest plays off the beautiful image of a woman in an impeccable kimono swinging in her very different way upon a log, a child again.
Indeed, the great surprise of The Funeral is how much feeling emerges in spite of everything, not least in a quiet, disarmingly sincere climax in which some simple words from the heart replace the scripted ones Wabisuke has been preparing for days. If you look at Henri Cartier-Bresson’s celebrated photo of a Japanese funeral, you see mostly black and what looks to be decorous grief; here the surfaces are often gaudy, cheery, and incongruous—as befits, perhaps, a funeral in a balmy summer resort.
Itami’s achievement is to bring two very different moods together, just as a wake often manages to do. The helter-skelter action of a slapstick comedy seeps into the openhearted plainspokenness of an Ozu movie. It helps, perhaps, to know Japan a little to see all the ways in which he isn’t exaggerating or taking poetic license; the film was a local sensation, claiming five Japanese Academy Awards, and was much more beloved in Japan than his next film, Tampopo, which won him a following in the West. But in the end, what he’s giving us is as universal as last breath.
What I most enjoy is how The Funeral, near its end, offers nothing to hang on to, as it follows the lurches of real life into one surprise after another. Adults at a cremation follow the prompt of the kids, and suddenly they’re seeing the body of an old man burn, thanks to a glitch, and getting a jolting reminder of their own mortality. Money literally flies away—as it’s been doing metaphorically throughout—and mourners in distinguished formal dress grab at it the way celebrants at a Western wedding might reach for a bouquet. During a long season in which all of us have been reminded daily that we can’t control—or anticipate—a thing, there’s a certain delight in seeing how uncertainty can be another word for possibility.
Tragedy and comedy end up in The Funeral as inseparably wed as the old husband and wife we meet at the film’s beginning. The minute piety cracks open, we encounter something much more deserving of devotion. And in the final scene, with the three main characters back in their informal clothes again and returned to life—the mother herself had looked corpselike in the movie’s opening shot—we realize that we don’t know how much to celebrate and how much, almost in spite of ourselves, to mourn.
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