The Criterion Shelf: Directed by Juzo Itami

One of Japan's most outrageous satirists is celebrated in a complete retrospective that's guaranteed to shake up your month

My household was one of the lucky ones during the famed Toronto ice storm of 2013. We didn’t lose power or water. All we lost was cables TV, which meant that life could continue normally for everyone except my, at the time, 82 year-old father, whose primary method of keeping himself entertained was to park in front of the television for most of the day. He was unable to watch Greek news or soccer games from around the world, which provided me a rich opportunity to force my own viewing habits on the old man. I therefore spent a week showing him an array of classics from my Criterion collection. “What a lovely movie,” he said sarcastically after I showed him Bergman’s Hour of the Wolf. Or, “TURN IT OFF!” he exclaimed during Godard’s Weekend. (I was going to tell him how it ended, but I decided he didn’t deserve it.) One night, I went to throw a disc on and all he said, at this point accepting defeat, was, “Fine, go ahead, but please put on anything but Japanese. I need something cheerful.” I had shown him Keisuke Kinoshita’s Ballad of Narayama the night before, the film adaptation of a Kabuki play set in a village whose residents leave their elderly to die on a mountain once they turn 75. He was likely worried that it had inspired me in some way (it had, and I still dream of this magical place).

My dad was on to something here, because while I don’t share his disdain for dark entertainment (“Why can’t you rent more Betty Grable movies?” he’s been asking me for years, having been a European child who learned about America through movies during wartime), I do recognize that tragedy is the main form of catharsis in much of the Japanese art that has found popularity in the west.  Kabuki theatre is tied to urban life and urban mobility, and it often expressed its social concerns through tales of doomed, star-crossed lovers. Noh theatre, meanwhile, deals in Buddhist themes connected to lost hope, the death of loved ones, and the overall general sadness of life. To call something a “Japanese love story” anywhere outside of Japan generally means that the couple will likely end up dead. Many popular Japanese films from the post-war (and partly post-American occupation) golden age of the 1950s and 1960s is never without a sense of acknowledging and respecting life’s concerns through any manner of serious drama. Ozu’s gorgeous explorations of family life take the position that becoming a new family means destroying an existing one (since children, usually, must leave home to do it). Naruse’s observations on surviving the hardscrabble metropolis usually involved searing indictments of social inequality.  Of course, this is a skewed North American perception having to do with choices in international distribution, whatever hold that tragedy has on artistic expression in that country is not actually a definition of their output in general, and if for no other reason, the decade-plus in which Juzo Itami directed films prove this.

The Comedic and the Pathetic

Itami saw nothing valuable in being so pure about genre, and set out to shake things up from the moment he decided to turn his successful acting career into one that also included directing. Himself the son of a celebrated satirist, Mansaku Itami, who died when his son was thirteen years old, the celebrated filmmaker said in a 1988 interview with Hal Hinson that “human life is comic and pathetic in just about equal measures. And if you’re going to set out to describe people, you’re going to have both comedy and pathos.” After a short film in 1962, Rubber Band Pistol, made during the first bloom of his acting career, Itami’s celebrated life behind the camera began in 1984 when he was almost fifty, followed by ten more features in thirteen years that defied genre and propriety before his untimely death in 1997, under circumstances as complicated and mysterious as some of his more outlandish plots.

Born Yoshihiro Ikeuchi in Kyoto in 1933, Itami showed promise in the sciences during high school, where he was chosen as a prodigy to work on technology to fight the Allies. Itami met future Nobel prize-winning author Kenzaburô Ôe, who would go on to marry his sister and whose stories would provide the basis for one of his films. After failing the entrance exam to Osaka University’s College of Engineering, he entered the arts, working as a commercial designer, television reporter and magazine editor before entering acting school at the age of 27, the same year he signed a contract with the prestigious studio Daiei, who gave him the screen name Itami Ichizo (which would later become Juzo). He married Kazuko Kawakita, daughter of prominent producer Kashiko Kawakita, and thanks to his command of English, soon found himself playing token Asians in foreign productions like Nicholas Ray’s 55 Days at Peking and Richard Brooks’ Lord Jim.

His first feature as director, The Funeral in 1984, won the Japanese Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director and led to his second and still best known work, Tampopo, a perfect summation of Itami’s vibe for its dark, almost cruel humour surrounding a sweet central relationship. “Japan is a culture where if you want something to eat, or you want to have sex, or whatever, you just do it,” Itami told Hinson. “It’s not a Christian culture, where inside your head there are all these restrictions on your subconscious. Human desire is active in a fairly naked way.” In his films, characters suck the marrow out of life, sex is indulged in with reckless abandon, eating even more so and justice is pursued with tireless resolve.

Itami and Nabuko Miyamoto

It’s not possible to talk about Itami’s accomplishments as a filmmaker without also discussing the importance of Nabuko Miyamoto, his second wife and star of all his features. In an oeuvre that became increasingly didactic and determined to hold Japanese society accountable for its failures, Miyamoto’s presence was the spoonful of sugar that made Itami’s medicine go down smoothly, with a cheerful and sweet countenance backed up by an iron will and no-nonsense intelligence. Each character she plays in his films comes with a striking look (particularly a striking hairstyle, my favourite of them the professional lawyer square-shelf in The Gentle Art of Japanese Extortion) and even more striking personality. In a collection of works that all play like riffs on the American classic western, Miyamoto is often charged with enacting the role of the sheriff who has come to clean up a dirty town.

The couple’s collaborations were fruitful and, in most cases, very popular. The majority of his films were box office smashes and won awards, though their popularity didn’t extend to all his intended targets. In 1992, following the box-office success of The Gentle Art, Itami was attacked, beaten and slashed by 5 members of the Goto-gumi yakuza gang in retaliation for what was assumed to be his lampooning them as bratty bullies in that film. Ever one to make lemons out of lemonade, Itami’s time in the hospital receiving treatment for these injuries inspired him to make the medical drama The Last Dance as his next project (he was more controversial than ever, and a screening of that film was interrupted by a right-wing protester slashing the screen).

Juzo Itami’s screenplays conclude with as much audacity as the plot twists that precede their endings, often too ironic and provocative to be called Happy Endings but certainly nothing my father would object to. Real life denied Itami his own happy ending: his death by falling from the roof of his office building was officially ruled a suicide thanks to a note found on his desk, alluding to the shame of an extra-marital affair. However, his family denied this narrative even while it was being celebrated by the tabloid media. A former member of the Goto-gumi later took credit for his death in an interview, stating that he and his buddies forced Itami to choose being slain by them or taking his chances on the jump, but nothing has ever been proven. His work, which also includes a wealth of writing and translations of famous western authors like William Saroyan, remains his legacy, and fans can also celebrate him at the Itami museum in Matsuyama.

Criterion Pays Tribute

Criterion pays tribute to this great actor, director, writer (including translations of famous western authors, like William Saroyan) and bon vivant with a real rarity on the Channel, a complete retrospective that includes all ten features and his initial short, giving you the opportunity to enjoy his entire oeuvre behind the camera. The films after his only international success with Tampopo provide diminishing returns, however, as Itami’s frustration with getting messages across start to play as lectures (for which he received plenty of criticism at home). He nevertheless gets his wind back in his last two, Supermarket Woman and Woman in Witness Protection, which are particularly great examples of his outrageous flair for comedy and Miyamoto’s acting skills.

As I write this, a severe, near-tornado-level thunderstorm has just laid waste to the city of Toronto (and surrounding areas), but my home was once again spared. This time, thankfully, with no interruption to either electricity or cable, so I’ve missed out on the opportunity to continue my father’s arthouse education. At 91, he doesn’t have much patience for movies anyway, sad or happy, so it might be time to take him up that mountain after all; the pleasure of watching Red Beard in privacy and quiet will be well worth it.

Juzo Itami’s films are reviewed below in chronological order, all reviews are by Bil Antoniou except, where noted, by Barbara Goslawski, with the author’s thanks.

Rubber Band Pistol, 1962

Itami’s first effort as director was this boisterous short, his only work behind the camera for twenty years to follow. A group of friends bookend the film by playing with toy guns that shoot rubber bands at targets, and in between are scenes of them at their jobs, living out their relationships or the inside jokes they indulge in while spending time together. What it’s “about” is of no importance, however, as the joy of this New Wave-inspired experience is the first inklings of the kind of passionate anarchy that would be key elements of the director’s later works.


The Funeral, 1984

Itami’s first feature is a remarkably assured debut that was a hit from the word go, winning Best Picture at the Japanese Oscars and setting him on the path that would result in nine more films before his death. Deftly handling bawdy humour without upsetting the heartfelt treatment of the serious event at its core, it takes place over the few days that a married couple are hosting a funeral for the wife’s father after his sudden death of a heart attack. A stingy rich uncle shows up to annoy everyone with his opinions, the priest who has been hired to perform the ceremonial services does not come cheap and Nabuko Miyamoto’s husband Tsutomu Yamazaki is visited by his mistress, just some of the disruptive events that pop up while these characters are trying to make a simple connection with their emotions over their loss. Darkly, savagely funny, it emphasizes the vibrancy and brevity of living, cynical about people’s attempts to be perfect (and therefore immortal) while never disrespecting the tender emotions of those expressing their sorrow.


Tampopo, 1985

Barbara Goslawski:  Gloriously satirical and sensuous, Tampopo remains one of cinema’s quintessential foodie films. Playfully self-conscious, this comedy enchants with its mix of ritualistic rigour and freestyle association. Famously dubbed a “ramen western, the film liberally sprinkles in tropes from American Westerns with both Yakuza (gangster) and Ronin (Samurai) traditions. With a straightforward main storyline, it consists of a series of vignettes that frame and inform it. A pair of ramen loving truckers, Goro and Gun, happen upon the widow, Tampopo, and her struggling noodle shop on the side of the highway. After their brutally honest reviews of her food, she enlists them to help her learn the craft. Before long, they have assembled a merry band of men – not so easily as some must be won over with fists or conniving – who come together to help her to master the secrets of the perfect bowl of ramen. Tampopo‘s meandering structure allows Itami to concoct a genuine feast of cinematic styles and conventions. This strategy is ingeniously kept in check by his meticulous attention to detail as every ritual of the proper preparation and enjoyment of a bowl of ramen is articulated. The film also hilariously – and sometimes erotically or even grotesquely – revels in the joys of savouring any type of food really. It’s this madcap mix that keeps the film so deliciously enthralling. Released in the West in 1987, Tampopo is a precursor to such cinematic food celebrations as Babette’s Feast, Big Night and Eat Drink Man Woman.


A Taxing Woman, 1987

Juzo Itami scored a third hit in a row in Japan with this curious comedy inspired by his own run-ins with the country’s tax department, thanks mainly to his first film’s success putting him in a higher income bracket than he’d ever been in before. He creates a role for wife and muse Miyamoto that provides the best showcase for her talent yet, playing a vulnerable and quirky character whose integrity can never be questioned. She’s a tax auditor who fearlessly shuts down businesses with her savvy methods for unearthing tax fraud, a combination of keen character perception and razor-sharp calculating skills that gets her promoted within her ranks (but which also, the film isn’t afraid to say, makes her a bit of a pill). Once she moves from auditor to investigator, she seizes on the opportunity to close the case that got away, that of a shady business tycoon (Yamazaki) whose “love hotels” she is sure are a front for gangsters laundering money. The last third becomes a mess of bland, perfunctory details that don’t build to an exciting climax, but the cinematography is stylish, the score is funky and the performances are, as always in Itami’s films, full-bodied indulgences in the extremes of sympathetic human emotion.


A Taxing Woman’s Return, 1988

The success of A Taxing Woman inspired an immediate sequel that came out only a year later, and while the opportunity to see Miyamoto further develop one of the most popular characters of her career is irresistible, the rest of it just feels like a tired retread of the first one. She’s once again the tax auditor who always gets her corporate man, and this time is investigating a religious organization that she believes is the front for, what else, gangland activity. The proceedings are much darker this time around, the methods by which her crime boss nemesis intimidates the people around him are quite dire, but there isn’t the warmth of the first film’s quirky humour, and the nuanced relationship that develops between hero and villain is sorely missed (as is Miyamoto, quite frankly, who is hardly in this movie).


Tales of a Golden Geisha, 1990

A patriarchal culture’s subordinating women to second-class status is satirized in this absorbing comedy, that shows Itami taking a less outrageously funny attitude than he has shown since his debut feature. Miyamoto once again plays the lead, this time as a foundling whose foster parents place her in geisha training when she is an adolescent, then graduates with world-class skills that earn her a wealthy Buddhist priest benefactor. After his death, she makes good on her education and becomes a career woman with a job at a bank, but her relationship with a womanizing executive actually works out to less freedom and more heartbreak than when her relationship was governed by rites and rituals. When she returns to geisha life, she inadvertently steps into a scheme to rig a federal election that affects people close to her. It’s a bit too long for something so uncomplicated, and it features great performances and beautiful cinematography, but it’s a shame that Itami doesn’t have his character learn something worth using towards the story’s unravelling in the last third.


The Gentle Art of Japanese Extortion, 1992

Juzo Itami’s excoriating criticism of the bullying tactics of the country’s Yakuza gangsters has him once again creating an expansive atmosphere teeming with lively, exciting characters, though the good-natured humour of his earlier works has given way to frustration and bitterness, and the film’s plot often takes on a preachy tone (this did him no harm at the domestic box office). Thankfully, there’s always the presence of Miyamoto, giving another unforgettable performance as another character with an unforgettable coif and personal style, as a lawyer who is hired by a classy hotel to help them get rid of the yakuza doing their intimidation and extortion in their lobby and restaurant. It’s bad for business and will prevent the hotel’s being chosen as the destination for an upcoming international political conference, so Miyamoto befriends the hotel’s terrified accountant and bellboy, schools them on the ins and outs of the law and shares the expertise she has learned from her own personal history with Japan’s most notorious gangsters. The portrayal of the bad guys as not only evil but bratty bullies is likely why the film was met with retaliation, though Itami’s harshest criticism is actually for the rest of his country, whom he holds responsible for their fear of speaking out against a community of what he sees as undeserving despots who have no respect for law and order.


The Last Dance, 1993

Itami softens his stance on criticizing Japanese institutions in this sentimental medical drama, though in doing so also makes one of his least interesting films. Rentaro Mikuni is excellent as an actor and director who is filming a cheesy melodrama about a married couple dying of cancer when he himself is taken ill and sent to the hospital for tests. His doctor tells him he has an ulcer but the rest of his family knows that he has terminal cancer and a year to live, prompting his estranged wife (Miyamoto) to delay her divorce from him in order to be at his side. The admonishments of the medical system are gentle and nuanced, Itami is far more self-reflexive than he has ever been before and is slyly funny about the character’s grabbing desperately onto life’s pleasures before finally accepting his fate. Smart and sweet, the film is also far too vague and the plotting falls apart in the last third; it’s good to see the director chilling out a bit, but perhaps his anger also fueled better narratives.


A Quiet Life, 1995

The stories of Nobel Prize winning author Kenzaburô Ôe, who was also Itami’s brother-in-law, form the basis of this sentimental drama about a young woman named Maa-chan and her two brothers, one of them a mentally challenged boy named Iiyo (or Eeyore, as per the subtitles). The three of them have been left to take care of themselves when their famous novelist father (Tsutomu Yamazaki, returning to Itami’s work after eight years) accepts a teaching gig in Australia and their mother goes with him. Iiyo is self-sufficient and wise despite his disability, but Maa-chan worries about his well-being in a world that sees him through a cruel and condescending lens. She finds comfort when a helpful new friend named Arai takes Iiyo under his wing and gives him swimming lessons at the local public pool, but things get dicey when she learns that Arai actually has a checkered past with a disturbing connection to her father. The relationship at the centre of the story is very sweet, but Atsuro Watabe’s performance as Iiyo is too obviously the work of a neurotypical actor playing at a kind of contrived, magical simpleton that rings false every time he speaks. Itami throws in a lot of incongruous crime drama in the last third that spins the plot out of control, but the world he creates is, as always, appealing, and Miyamoto is terrific in a supporting role as the dedicated left-wing activist who is married to Iiyo’s music teacher.


Supermarket Woman, 1996

After a few flawed projects, Itami returns to fine form in this boisterous comedy that looks at the practices of commercial supermarkets. Masahiko Tsugawa is excellent as the owner of a failing grocery store that is being threatened by competition from a more powerful chain, but when his old school friend Nabuko Miyamoto turns out to have expert opinions on how to improve his business, he hires her to clean the place up. Miyamoto gives one of the best performances she ever delivered in one of Itami’s films, as the endlessly energetic new assistant manager who exposes scandals involving repackaging food, a butcher selling meat out the back door and their competitors’ attempts to undermine the store through paid spies. Exciting, funny, touching and topped off with a thrilling car chase, it manages to say a lot about corporate corruption without the bitter edge of didacticism that topples the balance of a number of the director’s works, and shows him in the best spirits he’s been in since Tampopo.


Woman in Witness Protection, 1997

Itami’s last film is a testament to Miyamoto’s talent, here playing a pompous actress whose many gigs we witness being played out within the film, including experimental theatre, filming a horror movie and performing in a prestige production of Antony and Cleopatra (among others). She’s working on her warm-ups in a park in the moonlight when she witnesses a killer commit a double homicide, then has to endure endless threats from a religious cult organization that the murderer belongs to when she publicly announces that she is prepared to testify in court. As with Supermarket Woman, Itami has softened a bit on the lecturing and sublimates the message into the excitement of the narrative (including another car chase), and does so with a great deal of creativity and glee.