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Death Exposes and Captures Japanese Society in The Funeral and Ikiru
The concept of the individual is a driving force in the development of Kurosawa’s 1952
film Ikiru as well as in Juzo Itami’s satirical comedy The Funeral, though the difference has
roots in how the two directors employ the concept of individualism in revealing the social,
economic and political climate of Japan.
Both films are insightful expositions on the meaninglessness of communal bonds and tradition in Japan as they offer the viewer two very similar yet different lenses into Japanese society.
Ikiru provides a commentary on post-war Japan, a society that Kurosawa saw as both economically and bureaucratically complacent, though it is not a critique because it conveys the message that social equality and generational unification can and should be attainable through individual acts that reject submission to authority, self-abnegation and conformism.
While Ikiru affirms the pride and power of the individual in 1950’s society, Itami’s The Funeral criticizes individuality in 1980’s Japan as individual wants, needs and concerns in an age of prolific consumption are seen as a pursuit of pleasure.
The children of the deceased exemplify this idea that Itami Juzo refers to as “the pleasure principle,” as they complain about and struggle through an “appropriate,” funeral for their deceased father.
The contrasting view of individualism is largely a result of how the problem of
generational disconnect is approached in both films. Generational disconnect is attributed to the
selfish, self-centered motivations of Chizuko and Wabisuke’s generation in The Funeral, as
placing individual over family reflects and only further exemplifies the divide in 1980’s Japan.
While Ikiru places Mr. Watanabe’s individual pursuit of meaning over his connection with his
family, the intent behind his pursuit is not only to find himself but to show that individual action
can effect positive change if one’s motivations are genuine and based on the principle of collective rather than individual gain.
Mitsuo is seen in a similar way as Chizuko and Wabisuke as they both lament over and see their parents way of life as foreign and irrelevant, though while the older generation in The Funeral is seen having old, unchanging ways, Mr. Watanabe is seen as a symbol of change in a stagnant society. The way that Mr. Watanabe and Mr. Amamiya are viewed by the two director’s in their films’ respective funeral proceedings largely comes through the way they are treated post-mortem, and provides the viewer with the ability to understand the way that others in the film view the deceased men and the impact they had on their families and society.
In my opinion it is vital to compare two scenes that capture how others view the
deceased, and how those views paint an accurate photo of society’s influence on the individual.
Through an analysis of both films I found that the way in which the deceased is interpreted by
the viewer and the characters in the film, including just before and after, provides a just lens into
the issues both men were dealing with before their death.
When comparing the two scenes it is clear that the subtle similarities are outweighed by
the cardinal differences that come largely as a result of the difference in societal expectations and
norms between 1952 and 1984 when these two films were made. It should be noted that the film
industry underwent significant advances in the thirty years between the two films premiere dates,
most notably the progression to color film, and though these differences should not be ignored,
they are not a fundamental aspect of my comparison.
Through an analysis of the interactions that surround the revealing of the funeral pictures in the two films, it becomes clear that Kurosawa and Itami’s approach to plot and style are drastically different, the glaring difference is that Ikiru cuts from Watanabe living to suddenly informing the viewer that he has passed through a photograph of his face, separating the film into two unique stages.
In The Funeral, Shokichi Amamiya’s relatives, friends, and a money hungry priest are the only individuals that initially come to remember his life, which is telling of the two essential themes throughout, the first comes throughout the film as his family reflects the generational gap
in 1950’s Japan, while the second comes through the priest, as he embodies the idea that money,
in a consumer-driver, materialistic society is now more important than, and in the end becomes
the symbol of emotion.
Together, these two intertwined, materialized motifs show that his own family members lack any sort of tie to other generations as Chizuko and Wabisuke see their parents way of life as outdated and irrelevant in their pursuit for individual pleasure. In Kurosawa’s film, Mr. Watanabe and the impact he has on society is shown before we hear the news that he has died and see his funeral image through his personal initiative to repair a cesspool that was petitioned by the women’s committee. Instead of breaking down one film at a time, I will compare the three periods of both scenes; the time preceding the director’s pan to the funeral image, the pan into the funeral image, and the few minutes after our initial view of the photograph to most effectively analyze the scene.
The two scenes have multiple shared elements, though the plot structure is drastically
different as Ikiru presents Mr. Watanabe’s wake photograph as means of informing the viewer
that our protagonist has died, while The Funeral reveals the photo after we have knowledge of
Shokichi’s death, rather using it to develop and acknowledge the awkward and materially driven
Mr. Watanabe sits in his office, working in the same tedious bureaucratic position that he has held for thirty years. While in the office, Watanabe is surrounded by bureaucrats that go through their days without purpose or meaning, re-assigning tasks and neglecting their responsibility to the Japanese people. This is clear as the women’s committee responsibility stating “No, this is just the sort of matter that public affairs must take the lead on,”(Kurosawa) and as Kanji crunches the transfer request he retorts “This isn’t just engineering’s problem.”
As he goes to survey the sight the other men follow him in a state of panic and shock, hesitant to move past their accepted roles, and as this takes place it should be noted that Kurosawa once again uses music to capture the mood of the characters, as “Happy Birthday,” is trumpeted in the background, marking the birth or rebirth of Watanabe.
This scene is an important precursor to the narrator’s message that Watanabe had died five months later due to stomach cancer because the last image of him is a personally driven, motivated and well intentioned individual who does not only personally take action, but inspires his coworkers to as well. This suggests to the viewer that even before his death he was able to influence others to
question the bureaucracy and perhaps even follow his lead.
On the other hand, the minutes before the wake photograph is placed on the coffin in The
Funeral, the younger generation display’s their lack of concern for ritual as they grimace and
complain while moving the coffin.
Though the point can be made that it is the heavy rain and weight of the coffin that warrants this reaction, the young men moving the coffin do not seem to even care where the coffin is placed or what direction it faces, as one states “Up in front. There, I guess” (Itami) when referring to it’s location, an important custom in Japanese culture. The elder man is the only one who shows any concern through his expression and vocal reflection which becomes evident as his eyes remain locked on the lavish white and gold coffin, questioning the accuracy of their procedure.
Meanwhile, the younger men begin to laugh at the fact that so much importance is placed on customs and traditions that they see as trivial, so much so that they leave the scene together before the direction is decided. In contrast to Ikiru, Itami does not give us an outlook into the deceased through flashbacks, and as a result we are left with third-person the mourners through his eyes.
As the camera centers on Kikue, surrounding family members, including Wabisuke, stare down into the camera, fixing their eyes on Shokichi’s face. As Kiku reflects on her late husband it becomes clear that she is emotionally torn, though in the same shot Wabisuke appears almost annoyed to be there and endure a short period of reflection on his father-in-law, which becomes more evident as he describes the deceased’s facial expression “sarcastic.” The generational separation is most telling in this sequence as it is clear that an emotional connection is not made even after Wabisuke reflects on the life of and stares into the eyes of his father-in-law.
Wabisuke’s generations selfishness is not only seen through a lack of emphasis on or annoyance with tradition, but as the camera cuts back to a zoomed in lens of the photo, their overall outlook on the value of life becomes clear as the shot, still zoomed in on Shokichi, is complemented by a background exchange in which Shokichi’s life is seen in terms of monetary value as we hear “he [Shokichi] cost us only 33,560 yen to die,” which they remark is the “way to go.” This exchange shows that his contributions to his family and society hold no real value outside of his monetary contributions.
Though we lack insight into the act of the wakes setup in Ikiru, there are similarities and
differences to be drawn in the style employed and the reaction of those that have in some way
been affected by the deceased in both films.
After Watanabe seems to have been re-born, evidenced by his eagerness to take action in conjunction with Kurosawa’s decision to overlap this scene with the music of “Happy Birthday,” in the background, the scene immediately cuts to black. What was not anticipated is that after the scene cuts from black we are immediately met with a shot of Mr. Watanabe’s face in the form of a funeral photo. Itami then cuts from the photo to a shot of the entire altar, and then continues to zoom out as we get a lens of all the people that in-law, brother and wife.
Though they may not all be on the same page with regards to the degree to which Mr. Watanabe was responsible for the park, the third shot of the altar and the two shots that follow it, both providing a view of the altar through a window, show everyone on cushions, drinking sake, on opposite sides of the altar, respecting the life of Watanabe.
Though Itami Juzo’s 1984 film is certainly a better lens into traditional Japanese funeral proceedings, Ikiru provides a more slow-paced and reflective tribute to the deceased which is evident through the manner in which Itami uses shots of the actual altar as well as the people that surround it to show the polite and respectful manner in which they carry themselves.
Both films deal with the experience of death, though the difference is that impending
death in Ikiru leads Watanabe to want to change the problems he sees in society, while
Shokichi’s death in The Funeral only shows and confirms the problems in Japanese society.
This fact becomes even more evident through the scenes following the initial glimpse of the two
funeral photograph as Ikiru uses the image to show the impact Mr. Watanabe had on differing
groups of people and society in general through the collective mourning and remembrance of his
life that occurs at his wake photograph. Not only do reporters come to question the deputy
mayor, they support and recognize Watanabe’s contributions, as do the women of the village that
Watanabe personally affected.
The manner in which Shokichi’s family members approach the casket and photo after it is
initially revealed in The Funeral is undeniably mournful yet is still overshadowed by the fact that
his family views accompanying the casket as a moral responsibility, which is clear as Wabisuke
must convince Shokichi’s wife to stay and accompany the deceased instead of getting a drink.
This exchange takes place after Chizuke and Wabisuke negotiate how much they must pay the material greed. This fact is evident in the way the priest in the film is depicted which is
representative of a larger Japanese cultural and religious institution referred to by Itami as
“funeral buddhism,” as these spiritual figures exploit individuals such as Wabisuke and his wife
who are consumed by the materialistic culture of 1980’s Japan.
After the priests accommodations have been dealt with, the camera pans to Chizuke and Wabisuke preparing for bed with the photo of Shokichi in the background, and as the camera zooms into focus on the wake photograph Kikue suggests they have a drink, though Chizuke replies “no mother you stay, you’re the next of kin” and as bleak music begins in the background the camera fades into a photo of Shokichi’s dead, emotionless face.
Itami uses a close up of the photo in this instance as he does in the previous one, to show the lack of generational connectedness and selfishness of the family. This is clear as all his family has to show for him, and really their generation, is a photo sitting on top of his casket, his actual physical presence on this earth, and his monetary value to the family, or the cost of his burial.
Though Watanabe may be seen by Mitsuo as a “petty bureaucrat,” there remains enough
of an understanding between generations to establish an emotional connection when Watanabe
dies, and an acknowledgment of his life in terms of his personal value and his contributions to
Watanabe was able to break through a stagnant social and political climate, and even
those removed from his work, such as the reporters that come to the wake, acknowledge this as
they believe “it was really Watanabe-san who built it,” as he was the man who “kept the plan
alive and saw it through.” Though the reporters at the wake dont have a personal connection with
Watanabe, they recognize and understand that the community residents, regardless of age or
profession, “are all worried about why Watanabe-son died in the park he created,” which
becomes clear as various people come to reminisce and mourn together in front of the altar.
Perhaps the most telling shot of how his individualism touched everyone in attendance comes
when those who were immediately affected by Watanabe’s action, the local women’s group,
grieves with such powerful emotion five months after his passing. As they leave the room,
Kurosawa employs a quadruple axis cut on Watanabe’s wake photograph, and in doing so
represents the various ways of interpreting his life and the impact he had through four different
The two wake photographs in Ikiru and The Funeral serve multiple functions as they
provide a lens into the third party perspective of the deceased, allowing the viewer to come to a
conclusion about how individualism and identity shaped life in Japan between 1950 and 1980
when the two films were made. The interaction surrounding the initial display of the photographs
captures the themes of generational divide and materialism in the two films, and as I detailed
through my essay these themes are further developed and exemplified through these two scenes.
The feelings of the bereaved towards the deceased is a result of the representation that the elders
in the film have, as The Funeral shows the deceased as having old, unchanging ways, while
Ikiru shows the elder man, Mr. Watanabe, as a catalyst for change. The apparent difference that is
clear through these two scenes is that while Mr. Watanabe rejects conformism and society in
Ikiru, the elder generation of 1980’s Japan is seen accepting conformism and society.
Individualism is used to improve society and change the ignorance of the younger generations in
Ikiru through a critique of the civil service and public institutions in the supposedly “new” Japan
of the post-war period, while individualism ultimately is seen as the pursuit of pleasure as the
rising generation of Japanese citizens are so consumed by themselves and their personal
successes that they are on cloud nine, disregarding the ways of their ancestors or family
This difference is why The Funeral focuses on the youth more than Ikiru, as Chizuke and Wabisuke have such a strong sense of their own identity that they feel they do not need to
worry about the past. These two scenes that I have analyzed do not only capture the themes I’ve
discussed, though more importantly fit into the overall message that Kurosawa and Itami want to
get across to the viewer.
Kurosawa wants to motivate his viewers to at least think about if not act to change Japanese bureaucratic complacency which is achieved through the mood and actions that take place surrounding his fixation on the wake photograph, as well as in the final scene of the film as one of his co-workers at least questions and is angered by the lack of government intervention. Similarly, Itami was pointing out the generational imbalance presented in the film, and aimed to caution the viewer through a critique of the materially obsessed children.
Two of the final scenes in The Funeral cement this claim, as one has the family member’s feet fidgeting as they all come together for the last time, and the second shows the family members chasing after a briefcase of money that has blow away, pointing out how their obsession with money has led them to favor material possessions over family and emotion. Death, by means of the two men’s funeral images, ultimately exposes the relationship between individual and society in both films, and in doing so provides a critique on the similar and different problems that Kurosawa
and Itami faced during their directorial careers.
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