Want a glimpse into the dynamics of a Japanese family? Head to a funeral. That other big family function, the wedding, is a time for putting on a brave face and meeting the in-laws in a spirit of celebration. But, funerals? Those are like emotional detonating switches: Festering resentments erupt, buried hatchets are dug up and secrets come tumbling out of the closet.
In his review of Yukihiro Morigaki’s “Goodbye, Grandpa!” (Japanese title: “Oji-chan Shinjattatte”) for The Japan Times last week, Mark Schilling drew a connection between the film and Juzo Itami’s 1984 directorial debut “The Funeral” (“Ososhiki”), which is one of Morigaki’s favorite works. Both are detailed observations of a family dealing with the aftermath of an aged patriarch’s death.
“As in ‘Ososhiki,’ funerals offer great opportunities to depict emotions that have little or no connection to the actual ceremony,” Morigaki, 34, tells The Japan Times in an interview that includes lead actress Yukino Kishii and veteran actor Ken Mitsuishi. “I was really happy with the outcome of this movie, especially in terms of assembling the cast. During the initial stages I was thinking I wanted to cast this person and that person but worried it would be impossible because they’re all such big names. Miraculously, though, I got everyone I wanted.”
“Goodbye, Grandpa!” is Morigaki’s directorial debut. He has already established a solid reputation directing TV commercials, including the much-acclaimed role-playing game “Granblue Fantasy.” Going from ads to films, the chance to direct actors through a longer narrative was undoubtedly a thrill.
With Kishii, Morigaki says he “wanted someone with the right ambience, not so strong that the audience would find it hard to relate to her, but not too ordinary either.”
“Kishii-san has a particular presence on screen and she’s naturally observant, which is just the quality this movie needed.”
Kishii, 25, plays Yoshiko Haruno, a young woman who has a vague longing to escape her small town life in Kumamoto, but can’t break free of her attachment to her boyfriend. The story unfolds mostly from her perspective. Unlike her younger cousins, she has the life experience necessary to process everything that’s going on but, unlike her elders she’s not bitter about unresolved family issues.
“It was an intensely interesting experience for me to be on the set because it reminded me of my own experiences growing up and what I felt about family gatherings,” Kishii says. “I would hear stories from my mother about how strict her father was, and how he went into a rage one time just because she wanted to wear a pair of red shoes. That didn’t gel with my image of my grandfather because by the time I came along, he had mellowed out and become this nice old guy.
“Years ago when I was a kid, I did something bad and fearing it would get me in trouble with my grandfather, I texted him an apology. I knew I should have apologized in person, but I didn’t — and he forgave me. Incidents like that came back to me (during filming).”
Kishii says that she had always been struck by the way Japanese funerals differ so vastly from the Western funerals she was used to seeing in movies.
“Western funerals look so much more somber,” she says. “It’s usually raining in those scenes, with everyone carrying black umbrellas and the widow with her veiled hat and people crying into their handkerchiefs and all. I suppose, in a way, that the Japanese funeral is one of the things that has stubbornly remained incredibly traditional. And it’s often the only time that family members take the trouble to gather under the same roof.”
Morigaki agrees with Kishii and adds that, for many Japanese, funerals have a strange way of drawing out emotions and memories. The director says he hasn’t attended too many funerals in his time, but recalls the mood of one such occasion almost perfectly.
“I was a kid and I thought it would be a more serious affair,” he says, “but the fact is that all the adults were busy, moving to and fro and getting everything ready. When the Buddhist priest came and the ceremony was underway, my grandfather let out this huge fart. I remember that moment vividly because it struck me how surreal it was that, in the midst of death, everyone suddenly seemed to be more … human!”
At 56, Mitsuishi is the oldest of the trio. He’s an instantly recognizable character actor who has appeared in a multitude of films and TV shows since he first made his acting debut almost 40 years ago. In “Goodbye, Grandpa!” he plays Yoshiko’s middle-aged dad, Seiji. Seiji was a salaryman, but has suddenly quit his job. He looks horns with his brother, Akio (Ryo Iwamatsu), whenever they meet but this time the anger and resentment boils over.
Mitsuishi says his own memories of attending funerals echo scenes from “Goodbye, Grandpa!”
“I was in my 30s when my mother died,” he recalls. “It was 2:30 a.m., but a mere 30 minutes after she passed away the funeral home staff had already arrived and preparations for the ceremony were underway. Three in the morning and already the whole family was suddenly moving in a whirlwind of activity to get everything done before the first guests arrived.
“Like this film, there really wasn’t much room for poignancy or sadness — but it did trigger a host of other emotions. To me, funerals are quintessentially Japanese.”
“Goodbye, Grandpa!” is now playing in cinemas nationwide. For more information, visit ojiichan-movie.com.