The Criterion Voyages (Spine #1125): THE FUNERAL -- A Legend of Japanese Comedy Makes His Feature Debut
By Sean Boelman
Jûzô Itami’s Tampopo has long been a part of the Criterion Collection, so it is certainly a surprise that it has taken this long for his feature debut, The Funeral, to join the fold. However, now that it is in the collection, it is a must-add for any cinephile who is a fan of Japanese cinema.
With an episodic structure, the film follows a family who have a series of unusual interactions during the traditional three-day funeral of their patriarch. Although this is often over-said about films, this is the type of movie where you truly don’t know what is going to happen next, as the film expectedly gives no shits about your expectations.
The comedy in the film is certainly unique. It’s seldom laugh-out-loud hilarious, but it’s quietly wry with a very dark undercurrent. The often weird and random nature of the film is a large part of its charm. Itami focuses on parodying the mundanity of everything that goes on in preparing for a funeral, and the result is something that is extremely relatable.
With an episodic piece like this, it is important to have characters that are interesting, and Itami certainly delivers on that. The motley crew of family members that have congregated to “mourn” the death of their patriarch is full of quirky folks, and the dynamic between all of them is excellent and what makes the film work.
The cultural aspect of the film here is certainly interesting, as this is a commentary on many of the practices that make up a traditional Japanese funeral. However, even the practices that are most sacred and dear — the honoring of a loved one who is passing on from this life — are not too high for Itami to skewer them.
From a technical aspect, it is astounding that this is Itami’s debut feature. His command of the visual craft here is already fantastic and feels fully developed. There are several shots in the film that are simply gorgeous, and others that are framed wonderfully for perfect comedic effect, all thanks to the work of cinematographer Yonezô Maeda.
This Criterion edition features several bonus features, some new and some old. For the new, audiences can expect new interviews with actors Nobuko Miyamoto and Manpei Ikeuchi, which supplement a short program produced by the Criterion Channel and a booklet containing an essay by Pico Iyer and excerpts from Itami’s 1985 book Diary of “The Funeral” and a 2007 remembrance of Itami by actor Tsutomu Yamazaki.
The Funeral is a Criterion that you are definitely going to want to pick up, especially if you are a fan of Japanese comedy. It’s sharp, witty, and still a phenomenal satire even after almost thirty years.
The Criterion Collection edition of The Funeral is now available.
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