One of Japan's few filmmakers to achieve success both at home and abroad, Juzo Itami (1933-1997) made clever, farcical satires about the rituals of everyday Japanese life. Starting his career as a director at age 50, he directed ten popular films before committing suicide at age 64.
Mansaku Itami was a renowned director of Japanese samurai movies during the 1930s. Forsaking the grand, costumed epics of the genre, he made films that took a satirical look at his country's samurai culture. One of Mansaku's sons, born Ikeuchi Yoshihiro in 1933, followed in his father's footsteps and became known in the world of film under the name Juzo Itami.
For a long time, Juzo Itami resisted the impulse to follow in his famous father's footsteps. As a young man, he spent some time as a professional boxer and worked as a manager for musical groups. Eventually he turned to writing, publishing essays on a wide range of subjects and translating works of American authors such as William Styron. This initial literary bent was shared by Itami's brother, Itami Kenzaburo Oe, who became a Nobel Prize laureate in literature. Itami slowly made the transition from printed page to celluloid by becoming the host of a television talk show.
One of several interests, cinema held a natural attraction for Itami. He began acting in films in 1960 with a role in Yasuzo Masumura's Nise Daigakusei ("A False Student"). In 1961 he appeared under the name Ichizo Atami in a joint American-Japanese production of the Pearl Buck novel The Big Wave. Later roles included parts in the American movies 55 Days at Peking (where he was listed in the credits as Ichizo Itami) in 1963 and Lord Jim. He also appeared in Japanese films that got wide distribution worldwide, such as the Japanese-French confection Private Collections in 1979 and Kazoku Geimu ("The Family Game") and Sasameyuki (released to English-speaking audiences as The Makioka Sisters or Fine Snow) in 1983. His last role as an actor was in Suito Homu ("Sweet Home") in 1989.
It was not until Itami was 50 that he turned to writing and directing his own films. His first screenwriting/directorial effort came in 1984 with Ososhiki ("The Funeral"), an instant box-office hit in Japan. The film was a black comedy mocking the way modern Japanese culture short-circuits traditional burial rites for the sake of expediency and profit. To mourn the death of an old patriarch who operated a whorehouse, his movie-star daughter (Nobuko Miyamoto) and her actor husband must leave a movie set and spend three days at an elaborate wake. Miyamoto, Itami's wife, would go on to star in all his films.
In directing Ososhiki and the films that followed— most of which Itami also wrote—he used a disarming lightheartedness and an incisive, subtle wit to dissect some of the foibles of contemporary Japanese culture. Until Itami's films became popular, Japanese audiences were more interested in Hollywood movies or animation. However, Itami quickly gained favor by breaking through the cultural taboo against poking fun at the rituals of everyday Japanese life.
Inventing the Noodle Western
Itami's second directorial effort, Tampopo, is a light and intoxicating satire about the Japanese affection for eating noodles. Its heroine is a young woman named Tampopo whose ambition is to make the perfect noodle. A cowboy-style truck driver gives her pointers on how to popularize her restaurant. While making fun of the Japanese obsession for cooking and eating in ritualized fashion, it also presented the perverse and romantic possibilities of food. Tampopo (also released as Dandelion) became a hit on the U.S. art-house circuit and sent plenty of Americans scurrying off to Japanese restaurants to sample noodle dishes. Dubbed the first "noodle Western," the film serves up a delightful stew of movie genres, from so-called spaghetti western to screwball comedy to French New Wave to the films of surrealist Luis Buauel. Episodic and unconventionally structured, the film indulges in puns, edgy humor, and wry mockery of Japan's materialistic 1980s culture. Characters who represent many distinct cultures all share an obsession with food and use food as a way to thumb their noses at the autocratic, hierarchical Japanese social structure. Critic Jonathan Crow of All Movie Guide called Tampopo "a wildly inventive, fantastically entertaining movie by a film master at the peak of his powers."
Itami's next film, A Taxing Woman, was also an international hit following its release in 1987. In it the director casts a wry eye on the Japanese penchant for tax evasion. The film's protagonist works for the national revenue collection service. She relentlessly tracks down people who cheat on their income taxes, including a millionaire with mob connections who falls in love with her. The film is both an offbeat romantic comedy and a satire of the ambivalent Japanese attitude toward authority.
The following year, Itami wrote and directed a sequel, A Taxing Woman's Return. In this comedy, Miyamoto's character exposes a group of people pretending to be members of a religious organization in order to avoid paying their taxes. She discovers the group is really a front for a corrupt land developer. The film takes potshots at many Japanese institutions, including business, education, and gender relations.
Took Bolder Jabs
Itami's first three films were very popular in Japan and also made substantial amounts of money abroad, a rare combination for a Japanese filmmaker. In his subsequent films Itami retained his sense of humor but more sharply honed his deadly satire, and his movies contained increasing doses of violence and pointed social commentary. In Ageman (Tales of a Golden Geisha), Itami turned his attention to the contemporary plight of traditional Japanese geisha girls. Miyamoto stars as Nayoko, a so-called "golden geisha" who brings good luck to whatever wealthy man contracts for her services. The plot involves several men bidding for her attentions. Finally, a man who really loves her buys her contract. While this film casts Itami's customary intense glare on Japanese customs, it has a happy ending and a fairly light touch.
Much more serious, though just as funny, was Itami's next film, Minbo; or, The Gentle Art of Japanese Extortion, released in 1992. It is a scathing satire about the Japanese mobsters known as yakuza, depicting these men not as the latter-day samurai they pretended to be but as grunting, cowardly petty crooks who travel in packs and lack the guts to back up their verbal threats. Miyamoto stars as a courageous attorney who goes after the mob and defeats them; in the process Itami virtually instructs his audience on how to defeat these extortionists.
The objects of Itami's ridicule in Minbo did not take such jabs lightly. A group of five yakuza attacked the filmmaker within days after the film first opened in Tokyo. They slashed Itami's face with knives, leaving him with a deep scar on his cheek, which he wore from that day forward as something of a badge of honor.
Scandal, Death, and Honor
In 1995, Itami directed Shizukana Seikatsu (A Quiet Life), based on a novel by his brother, Itami Kenzaburo Oe. More melodramatic than most of Itami's later films, A Quiet Life centers on a young musician who has a severe mental disability. His father is a novelist and his sister is sheltered and devoted. A patient swim instructor seems a godsend for the young man and a possible mate for his sister until he is found to have a darker side.
Toward the end of his career, Itami's films began exploring mortality. He rejected modern attitudes toward dying in hospitals and showed reverence for traditional Japanese deaths at home and surrounded by family members. The Last Dance is an almost chillingly prophetic black comedy whose protagonist is an aging, drunken film director and actor who is making a movie about a married couple stricken with cancer. He is having an affair with his on-screen co-star. Eventually, the director learns that he has stomach cancer and that his doctors, true to Japanese convention, have concealed it from him. His wife finds out about the affair and prepares to leave him, but they reconcile when she learns he is fatally ill. The director considers suicide but eventually returns home to die in the comfort of his family.
One of Itami's most successful films was 1996's The Supermarket Woman. In this movie, the proprietor of a family-owned grocery store finds himself being squeezed out by a more modern competitor. A recently widowed suburban housewife awakens him from his stupor by pointing out how poorly he has managed his business. The Supermarket Woman, directed as a farce, with food fights and a chase through a darkened store, is another of many Itami films in which actress Miyamoto plays a strong-willed, effective protagonist who turns around a difficult situation.
Itami's final film, Marutai no Onna, released in 1997, focuses on a religious cult much like Aum Shinrikyo, the apocalyptic group that released nerve gas in the Tokyo subway in 1995 killing a dozen people and sending thousands more to hospitals. A veteran stage actress named Hiwako (Miyamoto) witnesses a murder; the victim is an attorney investigating the cult. When the cult learns she will testify against them, Hiwako too becomes a target. Her opponents discover she is having an affair and they enlist tabloid newspapers to expose it and ruin her career.
In December 1997 Itami died after he leaped from the rooftop of the eight-story Tokyo condominium where he had his office and home. He had learned that the weekly Japanese pictorial news magazine Flash was planning to publish an article suggesting that he was having an affair with a 26-year-old woman. Itami left notes angrily denying the affair. He wrote that his death would prove he was innocent of the charges, adding, "I can find no other means to prove there was nothing." Flash publisher Kenji Kaneto issued a statement saying: "It is quite regrettable that the movie world has lost a great talent. But I firmly believe that the content of the article is correct."
Instead of a funeral, the family held a memorial service that stretched over many days and included a screening all of Itami's films. At the director's own request, the service did not include elaborate floral arrangements or cash gifts. Meanwhile, Itami's sensational death shocked Japan. During his short directorial career, he had become the reigning ambassador of Japanese cinema, a prolific producer of popular movies and a first-class celebrity. The circumstances of his death seemed to shed new light on several of his films, in particular The Last Dance and Marutai no Onna, both of which concern the effect of the discovery of a romantic affair on an entertainment celebrity. These films, together with Minbo no Onna, also make palpable the threat of a gifted artist's violent death at the hands of his opponents or himself. For all his efforts to expose the hypocrisy of Japanese customs, Itami in the end seemed to be stymied by some of the very values he skewered so wittily on film.
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New York Times, December 22, 1997.
Variety, August 18, 1997.
"Juzo Itami," All-Movie Guide, http://www.allmovie.com/ (February 23, 2002).
"Juzo Itami," Internet Movie Database, http://us.imdb.com/(February 23, 2002).