The Comfortable Banality of Death: The Funeral (1984) - Review

About a decade ago, my father passed away suddenly, and I was thrown into a whirlwind of activity: I had to get time off work, procure a flight out to California, go to a wake, and finally attend his funeral. My stepmother had arranged a Catholic ceremony, and I was riddled with anxiety because I’m an atheist and was completely unfamiliar with the protocol. Luckily, my cousin sat next to me and was able to discreetly whisper instructions to me, which I desperately needed as Catholic funerals are complex affairs. I was reminded of this specific memory while watching Juzo Itami’s The Funeral (1984) as two of the main characters watch a funeral instruction video in order to prepare themselves for the ceremony. 

The Funeral follows a family dealing with the unexpected death of the patriarch Shinkichi Amamiya (Hideji Otaki). He collapses one evening from a heart attack and dies soon afterwards in the hospital. His daughter Chizuko (Nobuko Miyamoto) and son-in-law Wabisuke (Tsutomu Yamazaki) have to organize a traditional Japanese funeral, and the story follows the entire process from start to finish over the course of three days. 

Itami based the script on the real life experience of his wife Nobuko (who plays the daughter in the film) after the death of her own father. The most intriguing aspect of the story is the mixture of the tedious and often boring minutiae of dealing with the death of a loved one and the chaos of all the family and friends mixing together, expressing grief in different ways. Oftentimes, the bustle of planning funeral arrangements leaves very little time for people to actually grieve properly, and this is explored in the film as well, as the first two acts are a bit more lighthearted and comedic, and the poignancy doesn’t start to creep in until close to the ending.

This film is almost an “anti-Ozu” production—where Ozu’s work is regimented and reserved, Itami tackles the same subjects with bawdy humor, an explicit sex scene, and shocking asides. Chizuko and Wabisuke are actors who live in Tokyo, and they have to put those skills to use putting on a stoic face during the ceremony, only letting their true emotions show in private. The Funeral addresses the generational divide between old traditions and the duality of the younger cosmopolitan members who try to uphold them with their own spin on it, and in a meta sense Itami is doing the same with his own film. Audiences responded positively to the experiment and the film won five Japanese Academy Awards in 1985. 

YonezĂ´ Maeda’s earthy cinematography is organic and inviting, often feeling like a home movie as opposed to a formally theatrical production. The family home is located in a rural area surrounded by lush forests, and it’s a beautiful bookend to the occasionally somber atmosphere. Maeda is interested in the small details: ripe avocados spilling out of a grocery bag, the dusty stockings on everyone’s upturned feet as they kneel in remembrance, jittery children shifting their weight around anxiously waiting for the ceremony to be over, or the wind rustling the leaves in the trees. 

During all of this activity, the main star of the show, the deceased patriarch, is peacefully resting in his coffin, awaiting cremation. Itami periodically returns to frame his face in contrast to all of the harried family members—in death one is removed from the worries and cares of living, and it’s up to the people who are still alive to deal with the aftermath and carry on. After the funeral is finally over and all of the out of town relatives have left, Itami leaves the audience watching the remaining family members as they burn Shinkichi‘s belongings, turning the last remnants of his existence to ashes so that they can move on with their lives without him.

—Michelle Kisner