Film / Reviews

'Goodbye, Grandpa!': Even at a funeral, there's no escaping a dysfunctional family

by Mark Schilling

Contributing Writer

Funerals are just about as common in Japanese family dramas as weddings, but few films make them the focus of the story. The funniest would be Juzo Itami’s “The Funeral,” a 1984 black comedy about two married middle-aged urbanites negotiating the intricacies of a traditional Japanese funeral when the wife’s ornery father dies.

First-time feature director Yukihiro Morigaki’s “Goodbye, Grandpa!” is similar in theme, different in treatment. In place of Itami’s sharp observational comedy, Morigaki opts for broad comic strokes and feel-good dramatic tropes.

Based on Sahoko Yamasaki’s original script and premiering in the Japanese Cinema Splash section at this year’s Tokyo International Film Festival, “Goodbye, Grandpa!” is nonetheless perceptive about how death impacts the family of the deceased title grandpa, from grandkids who barely remember him to adult children nursing old grudges. Dad gets lost in the shuffle — or rather the explosions of anger that descend into slapstick.

Goodbye, Grandpa! (Oji-chan, Shinjattatte)
Rating
Run Time 110 mins
Language JAPANESE
Opens NOV. 4

At the center of this maelstrom is Yoshiko Haruno (Yukino Kishii), a travel agent who is in the throes of passion with her boyfriend when she gets a phone call announcing Grandpa’s death. Yoshiko feels guilty about this coincidence — she is enjoying life while her grandfather is leaving it — as well as curious about death itself and disturbed by the seeming indifference of those around her. Though oddly uninformed given her line of work — she imagines the sides of streets in India littered with dead bodies — she is a beacon of sanity in her dysfunctional extended family.

Less sympathetic is her father, Seiji (Ken Mitsuishi), a recently restructured salaryman whose reaction to his father’s death and the fate of his senile mother (Hisako Okata) is an extended shrug. Meanwhile, his factory-worker brother Akio (Ryo Iwamatsu) is vain, prideful and quick-tempered, much to the disgust of his bar hostess ex-wife (Jun Miho) and two alienated kids: teenage rebel Chiharu (Karin Ono) and social dropout Yohei (Amane Okayama).

When Seiji and Akio reunite at the family home in the countryside after who knows how many years, the sake flows and the sparks fly as one brother wounds the other with long-practiced precision. Into this absurd carnival of sibling rivalry, with Seiji and Akio rolling in the dirt like battling 10-year-olds, descends Kaoru (Miki Mizuno), a stylish single woman in a Ferrari. Now the brothers have a new target of resentment, and Yoshiko has a new role model.

“Goodbye, Grandpa!” follows the local genre rules for heart-warming family dramas, so all the characters — even the most obtuse — must finally become lovable. And even the unconventional types reveal a reassuringly conventional side.

But the film also does not present the usual pat, uplifting resolutions to its various story lines. What it does show realistically is how grief arrives on its own schedule, sometimes triggered more by memory than the actual presence of death.

And it shows how funerals here are so often similar to weddings and other family gatherings. One reason, Kaoru acidly observes: “Men love any excuse to drink,” the besotted Seiji and Akio being Exhibit A.

By contrast, the film’s women, for all their foibles, are mostly straight-talking and clear-headed. But they are also mostly smokers, Yoshiko included, and this ex-tobacco-addict found their constant puffing vaguely troubling. I was mentally telling them to give up the cigarettes if just to postpone their own dates with the crematory.