The Funeral: At a Loss
Death sits at the center of life in Japan. In every last household here, the departed enjoy pride of place, their framed portraits and memorial tablets serving as shrines of a sort; every morning, my Japanese wife—like most of our neighbors—sets out fresh food and tea for her long-dead parents, and she regularly travels two hours, by bus and three trains, to the family grave to fill in her late grandmother on the latest news. Even after an intricate and somewhat assembly-line funeral is concluded, a priest will return to the house, at prescribed intervals, again and again for years to come, to engage in high-speed chanting.
Death is also very big business in Japan. That Buddhist priest gets paid handsomely for every one of these pro forma visits, and family members are expected to travel long distances, dressed in black, to listen to his chants. Headstones can cost up to twenty thousand dollars. Those who remain are urged to buy a Buddhist name to protect a dead loved one in the afterworld, setting them back thousands of dollars even if they don’t go for one of the pricier options. A sleek and well-organized three-day set of ceremonies following a death can easily cost more than a new Toyota.
So it only makes sense that a satirist like Juzo Itami, son of a well-known prewar director of comical samurai films, would have scandalous fun with this most solemn of rites in a rite-bound society. And that he would use a funeral as a way to get at the treacherous gap that regularly separates public emotion from real feeling.
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