Japan is a funny place, and I mean that as a compliment. Life there is filled with humor — some intended, some not. Laughter breaks the tension in an overly tense society. And every once in a while, an artist comes along who has an eye for that humor and can illuminate Japanese life for us. If you want to learn about human nature, watch Akira Kurosawa; if you want to learn about the Japanese, watch Yasujiro Ozu.
It’s the eye for everyday humor that makes the difference. Kurosawa takes us plunging into the depths of human nature, Japan’s Shakespeare. Ozu allows us to eavesdrop at the dinner table.
Sometimes the Ozus of the world get overlooked. Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when Takeshi Kitano was winning international awards for his pretentious oriental fare — like John Wayne, Kitano banks on a mythic past — a far more talented director was struggling to find his place in Japanese cinema. Juzo Itami, a filmmaker for just 12 years, ended his career abruptly when he jumped off the building of his production office in 1997 over a tabloid’s claims that he was cheating on his wife, actress Nobuko Miyamoto. It was a tragic end to a brilliant if brief career. One Japanese magazine even speculated at the time that the international acclaim for less talented Japanese filmmakers had sent Itami into depression.
Itami’s work captures the humor of life in Japan better than any of his contemporaries. He was a daring filmmaker — a social activist who went straight after Japan’s biggest taboos. In some ways, he was like Oliver Stone, except much, much funnier.
“I make movies to get the Japanese to look in the mirror,” Itami told an audience at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan in July 1996.
The first movie Itami directed and wrote, Ososhiki (The Funeral), came out in 1984. He was 50 at the time. Itami used the story of a family preparing for a funeral to subtly spoof Japan’s obsession with doing things the “right” way. In one scene, family members watch a how-to video to practice proper grieving. The movie was a big hit in Japan and a critical success overseas, launching his directorial career with a bang.
For the next 12 years, Itami’s movies would be the most illuminating, creative and witty cultural products to come out of Japan. He directed 10 films in all, and in this body of work he put together a dynamic portrait of modern Japan, complete with gangsters, corrupt politicians, two-faced religious leaders, struggling salarymen, philanderers, gourmands, lovers, even supermarket owners. He captures both the humor and the energy of Japan at that time.
Itami’s movies paint a far more realistic portrait of Japan in the late 1980s and 1990s than almost all of the books written by the West’s so-called Japan “experts” during that time. From Rising Sun to The Enigma of Japanese Power, the literature is humorless and one-dimensional, painting the Japanese as karate-kicking kamikaze pilots and blue-suited drones.
In contrast, Itami shows the Japanese as they are, faults and all, which is far more entertaining. Take the scene from the 1987 film Marusa no Onna (A Taxing Woman) where actor Shiro Ito plays the owner of a pachinko parlor being questioned by tax officials over his suspect bookkeeping. Ito goes into an elaborate fit when he knows he’s cornered and ends up hugging a utility pole outside his shop, bawling his eyes out. As the tax authorities fade into the distance, he immediately turns off the tears and says coldly, “I’ll cry forever if it’ll save me a few million yen.”
Like Stone, Itami’s films were criticized at home for being too didactic. And also like Stone, Itami couldn’t help himself; he just found too much that needed changing.
Itami made movies that riled parts of Japanese society. He was stabbed in 1992 by yakuza who didn’t like his portrayal of Japanese organized crime in the movie Minbo no Onna (Minbo: The Gentle Art of Japanese Extortion). Itami led a frontal attack on popular folklore (the very folklore that Kitano wallows in) by portraying the yakuza as mean, blustery, mostly dimwitted men in loud suits. A good chunk of Japan’s movie industry has long been reserved for formula dramas portraying the yakuza in a rose-colored light. The thugs who cut Itami’s face didn’t like the fact that the director had turned up the wattage.
Itami, whose real name was Yoshihiro Ikeuchi, didn’t begin directing until he was 50 in part because of the long shadow cast by his father, Mansaku Itami, a prewar director noted for his satire. Instead, Juzo acted. Some of his better known roles were in Sasame-yuki (The Makioka Sisters), MacArthur’s Children and the very funny Family Game. In 1969, he married Nobuko Miyamoto, the star of many of his films.
During his schooldays, Itami was improbably a classmate of writer Kenzaburo Oe in Ehime Prefecture. These two boys would grow up to be arguably the most important Japanese cultural figures of their generation. When they were in sixth grade, World War II ended. “At the end of the war, the adults took a 180-degree turn,” Itami recalled. One day, the Japanese people were told to prepare to fight the Americans to the death; the next, they were told to accept defeat. “It was upsetting and strange for the children,” he said.
Itami likened life in wartime Japan to life in the Aum Supreme Truth cult, which gassed the Tokyo subways in March 1995. An unbending obedience to authority dominated both groups, he argued. His last film, the 1997 Marutai no Onna (The Woman under Police Protection) deals with a Japanese cult, painting the members with alternating doses of sympathy and send-up.
Japanese pop culture is thriving more than ever these days, but it is often targeted at children and teenagers and seems oh so unbearably light. Itami created pop culture for adults. It’s too bad he’s gone.
Film director and actor Juzo Itami once said that modern Japan was a country that “failed to invent the father.” In the West, he said, the roles of mother, father and infant were fully developed, but in Japan, only the mother and infant had emerged. The mother-infant relationship is ruled by the pleasure principle, he argued, and the father’s role is to break that relationship and infuse the family with logic and rational thought. Because the role of the father had been retarded in Japan, the director said, Japan had only two cultural ideals: the motherly, nurturing type and the cute, obedient type.
In just about any Itami movie, men suckle on women’s breasts. Sometimes it’s the most corrupt or disturbed characters who suckle: the cult killer in Marutai no Onna (Woman of the Police Protection Program); the corporate tax dodger in A Taxing Woman. But perhaps the most famous breast-feeding scene is the closing shot of the hit Tampopo, which perfectly ties together the movie’s themes of eroticism and food.
Tampopo was described as a “Japanese noodle western” when it came out in 1986. It became a cult hit on college campuses in the US, and it seemed that Itami’s career was about to skyrocket. The film hinges on a fairly flimsy plot where a widow (played by Itami’s wife, Nobuko Miyamoto) tries to save her ramen noodle restaurant despite being a pretty mediocre cook. A mysterious truck-driving stranger wearing a cowboy hat (Tsutomu Yamazaki) appears and agrees to find a team of experts to help her learn how to make the perfect bowl of noodles.
Itami loosely weaves vignettes exploring food and eroticism in and around the main plot. The sex scenes are both funny and erotic, and some of the vignettes are knee-slappers, such as the scene where the old, sickly man is left to have lunch and promptly orders and devours the very dishes he is supposed to avoid, or the scene where an etiquette teacher tries to show young Japanese women how to properly use a knife and fork, only to be drowned out by a large Caucasian man on the other side of the restaurant slurping down his spaghetti with abandon.
Many movie fans expected more of the same from Itami, but his next eight films were more piercing in their social satire, more directed at affecting change, more Oliver Stone than Pedro Almodovar. Itami was obsessed with Japan’s culture of corruption, and then later, I would argue, with Hollywood.
His most direct spoof of political corruption, the 1990 Ageman (Tales of a Golden Geisha), is largely unknown overseas. Here he is spoofing actual politicians as well as Japan’s corrupt political culture. The actor with the thick glasses is the spitting image of Shintaro Abe, father of failed former prime minister Shinzo Abe; the one with the greased back hair and an eye for the ladies bears an uncanny resemblance to Ryutaro Hashimoto, who was prime minister when the movie came out; and the older man with the white hair and the closet full of cash will remind viewers of Shin Kanemaru, the kingmaker who was arrested at home with hundreds of pounds of gold bars stashed in his kitchen.
By 1990, Itami was the father of modern Japanese movies, leading the way for hits like Shall We Dance?. The responsibility seemed to weigh on him. He once said that his competition wasn’t with other Japanese directors but with Hollywood, because Hollywood made the movies the Japanese paid to see. Itami’s last work, Marutai no Onna, is his most violent, with car chases, fist fights and several murders. The tender touch of Tampopo is long gone by this point. Even Supaa no Onna (The Supermarket Woman), an entertaining movie about rival supermarket chains, contains a long car chase that seems stuffed into the script to placate those who need action and explosions in their movies.
Perhaps Itami was making concessions in hopes of drawing larger audiences. But his strength was not portraying violence or using special effects. He was best when he drew on his humor and compassion. Some of his most interesting scenes involve supposed enemies being drawn together, as in the gangster leader’s grudging respect for the female anti-extortion expert, or the tax woman and the tax dodger lying in an embrace after an assassination attempt.
Itami’s legacy may be largely overlooked, but his films still have a lot to teach us about what makes Japan tick.
Ososhiki (The Funeral) (1985)
Marusa no Onna (A Taxing Woman) (1987)
Marusa no Onna II (A Taxing Woman’s Return) (1988)
A-ge-man (Tales of a Golden Geisha) (1990)
Minbo no Onna (Minbo - or the Gentle Art of Japanese Extortion) (1992)
Daibyonin (The Last Dance) (1993)
Shizuka na Seikatsu (A Quiet Life) (1995)
Supaa no Onna (Supermarket Woman) (1996)
Marutai no Onna (Woman of the Police Protection Program) (1997)