Sunday, April 14, 2024

The Funeral [dir. Juzo Itami]

Juzo Itami's Tampopo, an ode to the transcendent pleasures of food, has been one of my favorite films to re-watch, so I had no issues about blind-watching his debut feature The Funeral (Ososhiki). This is a strongly autobiographical narrative about a couple that has to organize a wake ceremony for the wife's recently deceased father. Nobuko Miyamoto and Tsutomu Yamazaki (who were also the leads in Tampopo) play married actors who must rush out to their country home to arrange a 3-day funeral for her just-expired father. This involves calling all the close relatives and friends (over 100 people), setting up the funeral altar, inviting a priest to chant sutras, and then there's all the catering for the guests during and after the rituals.

Almost every mainstream culture across the world has its own set of elaborate (and frequently absurd) ceremonies to mourn the passing of the lost one and "ensure passage of his/her soul to a higher plane". We have all been through these experiences, and had moments of bafflement and even inner  outrage over the arcane rituals constituting the death ceremony. While not disrespectful, Itami does see the humor in these proceedings. There's a delectable comedy of manners that plays out here, some insidious satire - the couple watch instructional videos on how to behave during the ceremonies, the priest (Yasujiro Ozu regular Chishu Ryu) arrives in a luxury car. There's even a bit of slapstick, like when a relative flops over after his feet go numb during the lengthy ritual, or when the couple's young son deviates from the cursory tap on the coffin nail to really hammer his grandpa in.

The film has an episodic structure, dividing itself into the 3 days of the funeral. Even aside from the casting of Ryu, there's a strong influence of Ozu in the look and tone. I suspect the 4:3 aspect ratio reflects Itami's desire to emulate Ozu's style. He also pokes gentle humor at the master's trademark low angle 'Tatami mat' shot with the distorted perspective view of an ad film shoot, where a man is shown to be served tea by a giant geisha. His own nods to the sensual pleasures are indicated in the extravagance of the deceased man's last supper and the scenes of merry making during the wake ceremony.

The Funeral ends on a poignant, but positive note - the ceremony has allowed the family the emotional catharsis to overcome the loss and get on with their lives. It may not be as flashy or well-known as Tampopo but The Funeral is a terrific debut film, and one I feel will be an excellent comfort watch to return to.

Here's a really strange trailer of the film:

Now a few words on the blu-ray release from Criterion.

The back cover blurb simply says "High-definition digital restoration", which raises doubts about whether this is some older HD master. Fear not, the film looks so spanking good it might have been shot yesterday. Colors are healthy and detail is strong. The lossless mono audio nicely recreates the subdued acoustics of the dialog and gives a full-bodied rendition of Bach's Air on a G string, used at multiple points in the film. Supplements include illuminating interviews with Nobuko Miyamoto (who was also Itami's wife and creative partner) and their son Manpei Ikeuchi (who was the delightful child actor in the film), a short piece on the husband-wife collaboration, and a set of rather puzzling pastry commercials directed by Itami.

The booklet is also healthier than usual (nearly 40 pages!). Apart from the standard essay, it contains excerpts from a diary Itami wrote of the shoot, and a candid recollection of the maker by lead actor Yamazaki.

Frankly, this is a film I think everyone should see (You have to be a special kind of curmudgeon to not like it). It's very relaxing and gently contemplative, the humor sly but not mean-spirited. The blu-ray presentation is stunning and the supplements worth going through.

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