For most Japanese cinephiles in the 90s, JÅ«zÅ Itami needed no introduction. The son of a respected satirist filmmaker, Itami celebrated a powerful but tragically short-lived career as a writer/director. Prior to filmmaking Itami had dabbled in various fields; an essayist, critic, industrial illustrator, talk-show host, translator, and a versatile actor. Having been exposed to arts from an early age, Itami naturally gravitated toward the more innovative underground film scene that emerged in the early 60s. A frequent patron of the Art Theater Guild of Japan, an independent film distributor turned production house, Itami volunteered his experience as a commercial designer to help create the iconic ATG logo. It wasn’t long before Itami would lend his acting skills to some of the greatest Japanese directors. From New Wave maverick Nagisa Oshima’s Sing a Song of Sex and Masahiro Shinoda’s Island of Evil Spirits, to traditional historic dramas like Kon Ichikawa’s The Makioka Sisters and Ten Dark Women, Itami quickly made his mark as a respected actor before becoming a director himself.
After acting in a few ATG films for Shinpei Asai (Kidnap Blues) and YÃ´ichi Higashi (No More Easy Life) Itami’s finest performance was in the internationally acclaimed Family Game by Yoshihige Morita. At this point Itami had already made a few short 8mm films but was now beginning to focus his attention on directing his first feature film. With the ATG providing half of the budget, Itami mortgaged everything he could to make The Funeral which became an unexpected success. Starting his new career at the age of 50, Itami already had displayed a clear voice as a director with a distinct world-view, one that had not been seen before or since. Like all ten of Itami’s films, The Funeral is a social satire that focuses on the customs and etiquette of Japanese culture, in this case a funeral ceremony. The film displays the detached view from an outsider’s perspective but with a natural familiarity that keeps the film from being condescending.
The film revolves around Chizuko and Wabisuke Inoue (Nobuko Miyamoto and Tsutomu Yamazaki), two celebrity Tokyoites who must return to the country to hold a funeral for Chizuko’s petulant old father. Drawing from Itami’s own experiences, the film takes place in the three days following the father’s death. They prepare for the pomp and protocol of having a traditional Buddhist ceremony out in the country (Itami used his own house for the location). Itami focuses on all the ridiculous formality, like how to lay out a corpse or how much money to “donate” to a priest. The film plays out like a comedy of etiquette in which the characters must learn how to perform the ceremony in just the “right” way. We see them watch an instructional video on how to respond to condolences, barter over coffins, deal with relatives with conflicting customs, and confront their own discrepancies. Itami structures the film in vignettes, following each aspect of the ceremony then breaks to tangent moments for the members of the family. In one notable sequence, one of Wabisuke’s friends brings a 16mm camera (and unfortunately for Wabisuke, his mistress) to document the event and make a little experimental film. In the film within our film we see our protagonists go through the motions as well as catch genuine moments of happiness and grief.
The success of The Funeral allowed Itami to continue his critique of Japanese society with Tampopo, which brought him even more international and domestic acclaim. Itami once admitted that his method for pulling in an audience was to “gently make fun of them”. This method worked pretty well until his later film, Minbo no onna resulted in Itami getting his face slashed with a knife. It appeared that the yakuza didn’t take very well to gentle ribbing. Since Itami’s film claimed that the yakuza never attack non-yakuza, they wanted to personally prove him wrong. A few years later Itami was attacked again when (most likely) the yakuza planted a tabloid sex-scandal in an attempt to ruin him. Later Itami was found dead, an apparent suicide by jumping off his apartment balcony. Almost everyone who knew Itami could not accept it as a suicide, believing the yakuza were responsible. The mafia were still furious over his depiction of the yakuza in Minbo no onna. It’s fairly obvious now as much as it was then, but since no evidence was ever found to prove otherwise, his death is still regarded as a suicide.
In only twelve years JÅ«zÅ Itami made an impressive body of work, all biting social satires that consistently drew in audiences. His films gradually became more direct at addressing social issues, but still maintained a playfully satirical bite so as not to be too didactic. The Criterion Collection would be wise to preserve his legacy and The Funeral would be an amazing start. There are endless supplemental materials available on Itami and his work. Donald Richie, a long-time friend of Itami, worked closely with him while making the English subtitles for The Funeral, so having Richie’s input (and commentary!) would be invaluable. There was a crappy bare-bones release in the US but they’ve become OOP, although there are English-friendly editions available in Japan. At this point it seems that Itami is closely falling into obscurity, but his films are still relevant not only as a window into modern Japan, but they are presented in such a way that make them internationally accessible. Such a sense of observational humor was truly inspired and indeed, inspired many of the Japanese directors that succeeded him.
Here’s what it could look like…