Heading out further into non-American films that explore the space between comedy and drama, I move to East Asia, where there have been a number of Japanese films in this register. This feature was directed by a noted Japanese comedian, so it has a strong handle on the overtly comic elements of the story, but it also delves into some pretty serious and sombre territory too, given its unwieldy English-language title refers to a funerary practice.
It’s fair to say that reading the synopsis of this film makes it sound like pretty heavy stuff, and at times it really is — there’s nothing like a funerary ritual involving washing and packing away one’s dead relative’s bones after they’ve lain in a cave for four years to spark joy in a viewer. But the way that the director (known best in Japan as a comedian) approaches the material is to find the laughs as well: it feels like every moment of genuine melancholy is leavened with a moment of laugh-out-loud humour, but not in a way that’s jarring but one earned by the situation. Plotwise, it centres around Yuko (Ayame Misaki), the heavily-pregnant daughter of the deceased Emiko, who returns to Okinawa for the bone-washing rite of the title, and whose pregnancy becomes the centre of attention for her family and the community (who is the father, why isn’t she with him, etc.). However, the film itself is about more than her situation, ill-advised as it seems, and it never gets bogged down in sentimentality (how could it, given the subject matter the title suggests), but is instead about the bonds that bring families together. This is all expressed via this ritual which links the characters with the reality of death in a way that’s fairly rare in modern globalised society, and thus seems particularly fascinating. The performances are all excellent, not least my favourite: the leaden-faced and rather hilarious aunt figure who is introduced shouting at a character whom I really identified with (the guy who goes to the funeral and ends up claiming all the uneaten food to take home). For all that you might think this film could be, it turns out to be really rather touching.
Director/Writer Toshiyuki Teruya 照屋年之 [as “Gori” ゴリ]; Cinematographer Takahiro Imai 今井孝博; Starring Eiji Okuda 奥田瑛二, Michitaka Tsutsui 筒井道隆, Ayame Misaki 水崎綾女; Length 111 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Sunday 10 February 2019.