Criterion Review: THE FUNERAL

Tradition clashes with modernity in Juzo Itami’s satirical comedy


It’s death, Japanese style, in the rollicking and wistful first feature from maverick writer-director Juzo Itami. In the wake of her father’s sudden passing, a successful actor (Itami’s wife and frequent collaborator, Nobuko Miyamoto) and her lascivious husband (Tsutomu Yamazaki) leave Tokyo and return to her family home to oversee a traditional funeral. Over the course of three days of mourning that bring illicit escapades in the woods, a surprisingly materialistic priest (Chishu Ryu), and cinema’s most epic sandwich handoff, the tensions between public propriety and private hypocrisy are laid bare. Deftly weaving dark comedy with poignant family drama, The Funeral is a fearless satire of the clash between old and new in Japanese society in which nothing, not even the finality of death, is off-limits.

Inspired by real family events, Juzo Itami’s The Funeral is a personal, and often moving affair. Beyond this, it manages to fit into its narrative, an insightful dive into generational conflicts within Japanese culture. Old ways and new, tradition vs. modernity, tugging at each other against the backdrop of a Japanese Buddhist funeral. From the preparation, to the wake, though the service itself, and the aftermath, its a window into expectations and traditions, navigated by those brought up with it, and endured by those beholden to it.

A gathering of an eclectic assortment of family and friends, precipitated by the sudden demise of patriarch Shokichi Amamiya (Hideji Otaki). The film largely swirls around his daughter Chizuko Amamiya (Nobuko Miyamoto ) and her husband Wabisuke Inoue (Tsutomu Yamazaki). Their work as TV entertainers, speaks to an ability (and a need) to perform, to create a facade, something that is deployed and frequently tested as they navigate the responsibilities and expectations of them. What could be emotionally heavy fare, is given levity due to the exhaustive and intricate demands of tradition. The ceremonial aspects and behaviors, compensation for the priests, even the use of instructional videos to guide the couple through the process, all add to a growing sense of absurdity and farce. A deference to the deceased, at the expense of the living, in terms of time, money, and effort.

While this cost is highlighted, the film doesn’t castigate or cast out traditional values, no matter how exhausting they may seem. Instead it highlights how they can still offer solace, a comfort in ritual and family. Something that can be estranged from younger generations. Connections and comfort permeate the film, as it deftly touches on the whole spectrum of loss and grief. There is a superb balance of the tonal shifts required to pull this off, with careful timing and pace, supported by layered writing and nuanced performances from the cast. A family of fully fleshed out characters to connect with, share the processing of a death and what is left in its wake (no pun intended).

The Package

Image quality on this new restoration is pistine. Details impress, colors are strongly, and naturally represented. Blacks are deep, and overall quality of image and detail stands out. The transfer presents with a warm palette, that nicely complements a natural gain. Extra features are:

  • New interview with actor Nobuko Miyamoto: Miyamoto reveals how her personal experience of planning her father’s funeral inspired her husband (Itami) to make The Funeral. Beyond this, she also tells of her experiences working alongside her partner, and her overall career too
  • New interview with actor Manpei Ikeuchi: A shorter interview with the child of Itami and Miyamoto, who reminisces on his performance as a child in the film, working under the guidance of his father, and his legacy
  • Creative Marriages: Juzo Itami & Nobuko Miyamoto, a short program produced by the Criterion Channel: Hosted by film critic Michael Sragow, who dives into the collaboration between the pair, thier individual talents/contributions, the personal stamp they put on projects, and their legacy
  • Commercials for Ichiroku Tart by director Juzo Itami: A collection of TV ads made by the director
  • Trailers:
  • 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: Iyer’s essay predominantly covers the overarching career of Itami, and deftly places the film’s themes into cultural context
  • New cover by Tatsuro Kiuchi

The Bottom Line

Sobering and satirical in equal measure, The Funeral is as fascinating as it is poignant. A respectful exploration of Japanese culture, that skewers some of the more absurd efforts that come in the face of loss, and with deference to tradition. At its core, it highlights the human values in which we respect life, and find comfort in each other. Criterion offer a superb presentation of the film, supported by a set of extra features really reinforce the personal ties of Itami and Miyamoto to the feature.

The Funeral is available via Criterion now

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