The Sound of Flowers Burning, and Other Ghost Properties
By Ray Sawhill
Juzo Itami’s “Tampopo,” the second film he directed but the first to be released in the U.S., conveys a child’s delight in splashing food around and a happy director’s delight in playing with movie conventions and genres. It’s free-form, bright-colored and high-flying. “The Funeral” — his first movie as a director, although it only recently opened in America — is relatively subdued and even-toned. It’s so well-mannered that some may take it as a generic exercise in estheticized comic melancholy. But you may find it enjoyably peculiar, as I did: quiet and spare, yet lustrous and inviting. It has the quality of certain jokes that you repeat to yourself time and time again, wondering why you enjoy them so much. Itami, who is said to be an expert cook, has designed his film to be a passing, melting pleasure, experienced most fully in the savoring of it. Like “Tampopo,” “The Funeral” seems meant to turn you into a gourmand and a food critic, only in this film, resonances and aftertastes are what Itami orchestrates.
The film is narrated by a successful middle-aged actor, who is married to an actress he sometimes works with. In the opening scenes, her father, who lives in a country home near the ocean with her mother, has a bad heart attack. He pulls himself over the floor to the porch; when his wife finds him there, he explains that he was trying to get a look at the ocean — that the sight of it had helped him over such spells before. A few days later, in the hospital, he dies. The film’s skeleton is a chronicle of the ceremonies — and the preparations and worries that attend them — during the three days that follow. Laced in and around these basics are a variety of mild farce elements: a cranky older brother, a naughty mistress, eccentric neighbors, confusion about roles.
You can sense that everything in the film is presented in relation to ritual even though you don’t always know what the rituals are — like the characters, we learn about them as we go along. The acting milieu and the stage set-like house (whose rooms lend themselves to being seen two or three at a time) help give the film a backstage-farce vivacity; Itami has been an actor himself, and he’s especially good at using performances to bring out the flavors of locales and situations.
These ingredients are like glimmers that draw you into watching, or dreaming about, what’s going on down below: in this case, a tone poem that is a meditation on the dispersal of form. (Being drawn through the chronicle and farce creates its own awareness of dispersal.) Itami has shot and recorded his film so that there’s always something about the surfaces that makes you lose yourself in what’s beneath them. Everything — even new, pop objects — seems to have a patina, and a succulent, hand-rubbed richness: the sheen of wood, leather and flesh are especially vivid.
The blacks, like the blacks in “The Conformist” and “The Makioka Sisters,” are warm, active. Here, they’re in correspondence with another, deeper layer: a shadow black. The sounds unfold themselves for our delectation: the sound of hair being brushed, the ringing of a ritual bell (percussion, clang, tone, buzz, etc.); the sound of flowers burning, of rain pelting first a nylon umbrella and then a paper umbrella. One quick, stunning effect occurs when a furnace fire ignites: Fwoof! — and a room’s paper windows thwack and crinkle outwards with the pressure.
A Buddhist priest, who arrives in a white Rolls and who lights up at the sight of tabletops inlaid with French tiles, is played by Chishu Ryu, and the Ozu echo must be deliberate — Itami’s film suggests a loose, appreciative look at a late Ozu picture. But it has an element of the random and erotic, of darting play, that’s lacking in Ozu: Itami wants to convey his pleasure in the processes that give rise to and sustain ritual and performance. There’s life washing around the whole time, like static around a clear signal: kids tussling, people’s feet tiring as they squat on their knees, friends arriving to help out with food and chores. Itami is bringing us into contact with ghost presences, letting us swim among crisscrossing impulses. The layers reveal themselves and return you to the next surface.
The film’s events strike your mind like stones striking water, and watching the ripples expand and mingle can be very pleasurable. Several shots are from the point of view of the corpse. Through his eyes, so to speak, we watch his family bend over to peer at him, and we see the coffin lid lowered and two small doors opened to permit viewing. These shots, and several others like them, are grotesque jokes, but they’re held longer than we expect, and are repeated until we become familiar with them. They’re like the sound of that ritual bell — ours to wander around in.
They’re also reminders of a great shot in Dreyer’s “Vampyr,” and expressions of a feeling that so long as the physical vessel exists, the spirit continues to dwell within it. In other scenes we’re given a moving-through-a-tunnel effect. The camera precedes the hearse as it moves along narrow, wall-bound roads, over which trees close in; it rides the coffin into the furnace. By the time the crematorium chimney pours forth its smoke, and the widow, actor and actress burn the ceremony’s used bric-a- brac in a barrel, we may find ourselves thinking about how we are both chambers and enclosures.
Two scenes rise up out of what the other scenes flow into, and with a kind of blind force. One involves the actor and his mistress. The young woman, who has arrived with the mourners and who has grown drunk and resentful, lures him into a wooded area. She seductively exposes her neck to him, taunts him, and finally incites him into sex. Afterwards, he falls and muddies himself trying to fetch a bauble she’s lost. She laughs happily; he slaps her but she keeps on laughing — she’s tickled by the trouble she has caused him.
During the other scene, some members of the family happen upon a behind-the-scenes room at the crematorium. They look through a viewing hole in the furnace and see the corpse burning, and they talk to a technician about his job. This likable man, who bowed to the furnace before lighting it, tells about his dreams, and about his fears that one day a body he has put in the furnace won’t yet be dead. (We can know little about death; all we are empowered to do is become specialists in the rituals attendant on it.) A glen, hot with glowing chlorophyll and insects; the guts of a kind of factory — these scenes take place in realms where ritual, at least as we can know it, is supported and made possible.
The film’s tone edges towards comedy and then dissolves. What we grow familiar with is a rhythm of gathering, tensing, and then dispersing into a new set of forms. American audiences are used to a fantasy that there is some realm we can get to where we can be happy, powerful gods — a domain that’s often symbolized, at least in audio-visual terms, by dance numbers, car chases, gunplay, couples splashing in the California surf.
Itami’s assumption seems to be that it is part of the nature of identity to be dissatisfied with given forms, and that all that is available to us is a release into something about which we can know only that it has its own form; all energy and matter can hope to do is metamorphose. (He directs as though he believes that this can be achieved only via a heightening of our awareness of form — via something like fetishism. He’s as concerned with fetishism as De Palma, yet there’s nothing very obsessive in his way of seeing, and nothing very bound-in about the film. Fetishism, in the world of this film, is just what happens when you tighten your focus and begin to bear down.)
You begin to picture a life (or a movie) as a gathering of energy and matter, a channeling of them through space and time, and a final dispersal into something we can know nothing about. The film’s approach and style express the conviction that there’s an equivalence between ritual’s place in behavior, the body’s place in experience and form’s place in acting and art — that for all their drawbacks, ritual, the body and form are what make sensation possible.
There’s nothing overbearing or strict about Itami’s work; he’s an entertainer, and he deals with ideas by nicking them as he passes by, making them spin. They’re part of the show. A joke is “resolved” in a way characteristic of the film near the end. All along, the husband has been expected to give a talk about the deceased at a final dinner, and while he’s being introduced, his eyes are glassy and his knee twitches; this actor suffers from stage fright. But the widow indicates that she’d like to speak instead. The actor relaxes and the audience laughs; he has been given a reprieve.
The widow talks quietly about her regret that she wasn’t able to be present as her husband died; she was kept out of the room by the crush of doctors and nurses, and she is afraid that he may have been lonely. She talks about her feeling that her husband’s nature has changed, about a feeling she has that he and she have entered a new phase together. The camera moves in on her slowly, then cuts to a closeup. We understand that this is her discreet public acknowledgment of the momentousness of what she’s going through. (Watching her is like realizing that a local, family-owned store you’ve been planning to patronize has changed hands.)
Yet the camera’s exposure is set more for the brightness outdoors than indoors — the light on her face is grey and dim — and even as we take in her tiny, worn face and her struggle with her feelings and words, our vision is drawn past her and through the large window behind. We can see the porch and the green of trees, and we sense the presence of the ocean beyond, the sight of which the dying man hoped would heal his heart. “The Funeral” is about rituals that release the spirit, about giving up the ghost. It offers its own to us as a gift.
- A short video biography of Juzo Itami, who came to one of the stranger and sadder ends in movie history.
- A memoir-essay about Itami by Tsutomu Yamazaki, who acted in several of Itami’s movies.
©1986 by Ray Sawhill. First appeared in Film Quarterly.