Juzo and The Women
Juzo Itami (1933-1997) came to directing relatively late in life. Before he turned 50, he was known in Japan primarily as a TV and movie actor (although his father had been a noted director of samurai movies before the War). In 1984, though, he mortgaged everything he had to write and direct The Funeral (Osoushiki), a gentle satire about a family who gather to give a traditional send-off to their aged father, but, being a modern Japanese family, have no idea what to do. In the course of the wake, the prayers, the how-to videos (these are classic), the family draws closer together, even as they conclude that, after all, the old man wasn’t really very nice and they aren’t going to miss him very much. That synopsis doesn’t sound very funny, but that’s the key to Itami’s skill as a director: his ability to tell serious truths through a deceptively light, humorous style. The Funeral won prizes in Japan, and Itami got to keep his mortgaged house. He then went on to make his most internationally well-known film, Tampopo. It’s the story of a couple of truck drivers who try to help a widowed mother (Nobuko Miyamoto, Itami’s wife, who starred in all ten of his movies) save her run-down ramen shop. Their quest to find the perfect noodle recipe is punctuated by hilarious, pomposity-puncturing vignettes about the nature and status of food in society.
Many of Itami’s later movies were exposés of Japanese societies ills, disguised as comedies. In 1992, he made Minbo no Onna, (aka, The Gentle Art of Japanese Extortion), the story of a woman (Miyamoto, who appears out of nowhere like Clint Eastwood in a spaghetti western) who saves a foundering hotel from the clutches of a Yakuza extortion ring. It is more-or-less a how-to manual on how to protect your company from the ever-present threat of gangsters, and the film’s portrayal of the yakuza as blustering, vulgar, idiots was so insulting (i.e., true), that Itami had his face slashed by goons outside his home (later, another gang barged into a theater which was showing the film and ripped up the screen with swords).
Itami was undaunted, though. While in hospital, recovering from his wounds, he began collecting enough material to make a darkly funny exposé of the health care system (Dai-Byouin/The Last Dance). He went on to make several more comedies, but he was now a marked man, and although his death was officially a suicide, there are still rumors that he might have had some help in jumping from the top of his house one Tokyo winter evening in 1997.
Most of Itami’s movies are readily available on DVD with English subtitles. Besides the four mentioned above, you might also enjoy:
Suupaa no Onna (Woman of the Supermarket) – This one exposes the dirty tricks that supermarkets play on their trusting customers (date-changing, rewrapping, etc). Miyamoto shows her store-manager friend how he can be honest and still make a profit. Not as preachy as it sounds.
Marusei no Onna (A Taxing Woman), parts 1 & 2. – Miyamoto plays a tax inspector, diligently tracking down tax evaders. Itami got the idea for this one after the success of his early films suddenly boosted him into a shockingly higher tax bracket.
Marutei no Onna (Woman of the Police Protection Program) – Two years after the Aum Shinrikyo attacks of 1995, Itami had the guts to make a comedy about a corrupt cult leader and the actress (Miyamoto, of course) who inadvertently gets in his way. Itami’s last film, and one of his best.