The actor/writer/director Jûzô Itami, whose culturally introspective and richly satirical features of the 1980s and 1990s became international hits, would have turned 80 this May. His tightly focused and stylistically consistent filmography of ten films in thirteen years was a remarkable achievement in contemporary world cinema, his universal appeal marking him as one of Japan’s modern on-screen crossover successes. Yet for reasons of controversy and lack of availability in the West, his films are relatively underseen and his legacy seemingly undervalued today. The aims of the video above and the essay below are to give an interested neophyte a basic sense of Itami’s visual and thematic interests, and to celebrate a singular filmmaker’s career.
I. Cinema in Life, Life in Cinema
Itami was born Yoshihiro Ikeuchi in 1933 but as an adult took his stage name from his father, the pre-World War II satiric writer/director Mansaku Itami. Fear of working under the shadow of the elder’s reputation partially explains what held him back from starting his own directorial career in 1984, at the age of 50. Before then, he took on a wide variety of public positions in the arts, most notably as essayist, translator, TV host, and actor in such Western productions as 55 Days at Peking and Lord Jim and Japanese films as The Family Game and The Makioka Sisters. Yet from the beginning, acting and filmmaking held central thematic significances for Itami, becoming the milieu of choice for the protagonists in three of his films; from the other side of cinema, a movie theater provides the setting of the hilarious opening scene of Tampopo and an affecting moment for a cop who’s an inexperienced moviegoer in Woman in Witness Protection. Itami’s most commercially successful films frequently take an unorthodox approach to genre, melding Japanese sensibilities with decidedly Western forms. Jonathan Rosenbaum rightly compared Tampopo to a smorgasbord, but its main threads take the subject matter of food and present it in the guise of a Shane-like Western and a Band Wagon-esque send-up of a gangster. Likewise, the Taxing Woman diptych and Supermarket Woman take a thriller slant to such unexciting topics as the tax code and business dealings in the world of supermarket chains.
On a more self-referential level, the filmmaker wasn’t simply writing and directing about what he knew but distilling several decades of experience into his characters’ struggles to demarcate their public from their private lives in media-saturated modern Japan. The central couple of The Funeral, for instance, are introduced shooting a silly commercial in a medieval setting employing false visual perspective, enlarging the wife at the expense of the husband; when news of the wife’s father’s death arrives on set, they both deflate to normal life-size and find themselves forced into ritual roles for which neither was prepared. An attempt on Itami’s life by yakuza incensed by their blanket portrayal in 1992’s Minbo led to The Last Dance, neither the first nor last instance of real life feeding into Itami’s work. The movie’s entire narrative concerns a cancer-stricken film director’s tragicomic attempt to direct the arc of his own life, clearly paralleling Itami’s new-found sense of mortality. The nature of Itami’s untimely death in 1997, superficially a suicide, is still shrouded in controversy, but it seems bound up in his ongoing fearless jabs at organized crime, starting with A Taxing Woman a decade earlier. The filmmaker’s swan-song, Woman in Witness Protection, stars his frequent leading lady Nobuko Miyamoto as a film and theater actress targeted by a corrupt religious cult for stumbling upon a murder. It’s impossible not to see the heroine’s dawning courageousness in the face of reprisal as emotionally and perhaps even dramatically true-to-life.
II. Sociological Satire
Itami as a writer/director is best known for his fearless ability to mine humor from the foibles of Japanese society, culture, and institutions. In addition to taking on such heavyweight targets as the yakuza (A Taxing Woman, Minbo), religious fanaticism (A Taxing Woman’s Return, Woman in Witness Protection), money in politics (Tales of a Golden Geisha), and health care (The Last Dance), his films gently poke fun at such personal, quotidian elements as funeral rites (The Funeral), perspectives on the mentally-impaired (A Quiet Life), supermarket business practices (Supermarket Woman), and obsessions over the “right” way to integrate food into one’s life (Tampopo). Perhaps in the end this last theme encompasses all the rest: exploding the strict adherence to culturally-specific codes and rituals simply because they’ve always been done. As noted above, his penchant for speaking truth to the powerful on screen took massive tolls on his health, perhaps even to the end. This intrusion of his satiric targets into his personal life may explain the overall trend towards darkness during his directorial career, the earnest but gentle ribbing of The Funeral and Tampopo generally giving way to the more violent later films, featuring genuine villains rather than well-meaning but idiosyncratic regular people. Those films that feature Miyamoto bravely revealing the high-minded and powerfully corrupt for the venal cowards they are still bite when seen outside a specific Japanese context, and radiate pathos in light of their eventual aftermath.
Sex, death, and money, the constants of human life, have been intertwined since Itami’s very first film. In varying degrees, they all flow through his filmography, demarcating the limits of freedom available to any single person in society. Itami had already lived 50 years before directing The Funeral, and his films speak to what he saw as the universality of these experiences through the lens of popular entertainment. The true clear-eyed satirist that he was, Itami never sees sex, death, or money as solely positive or negative, but as ambiguous features of our transactions with other human beings. So lovemaking takes the form of erotic gastronomy in Tampopo and rape in Tales of a Golden Geisha; death is an opportunity for reflection and soul-searching in The Last Dance and cold-blooded murder whenever gangsters are involved; and tax collectors are heroes in two of his films but the root of all evil in Supermarket Woman. Even A Quiet Life, in many ways the gentlest and least representative of Itami’s movies (being based on a novel by his Nobel laureate brother-in-law Kenzaburo Oe), presents a young woman’s coming-of-age caring for her handicapped brother, surrounded by the demands of all three aforementioned fixed features of human existence.
III. The Muse: Nobuko Miyamoto
Soon after divorcing his first wife in the mid-1960s, Itami met Nobuko Miyamoto while acting in Nagisa Oshima’s Sing a Song of Sex (1967), and the two were wed two years later. She featured in all ten of his films, usually as an extremely modern Everywoman heroine overcoming in small ways the limits of patriarchy in a contemporary Japanese setting. In my estimation, they deserve mention alongside such wife/husband duos as Masina/Fellini, Karina/Godard, and Rowlands/Cassavetes. Even when she falls into the role of victim, as in Tales of a Golden Geisha, she’s never simply passive but subtly navigates her way through the modern social minefield. By turns triumphant and vulnerable, motherly and seductive, earnest and playful, her on-screen persona encompasses a wide range without betraying her core of authenticity, the secret that her frequently two-faced enemies lack. A physically petite and unassuming woman in the world of men, Miyamoto plays the eternal and ultimate underdog, beating the odds with guile and cultivated assertiveness. As the accompanying video above shows, she is also a whirlwind of bodily activity even in Itami’s usually busy films, and she’s equally adept at holding the emotional center of his entrancing if not flamboyant long takes. Since her husband’s death, Miyamoto has curated a museum dedicated to him in Matsuyama.
The legacy of Jûzô Itami is in crisis in the West due to lack of commercial availability of his films; despite being a big name in international cinema only a few decades ago, his releases are now collectors’ items instead of widely-available. Neither Netflix nor Hulu carry them. None of his books have been translated into English. The best deal on the Internet (and how I secured my collection) is at ioffer.com, where all ten films are available on region-free DVDs with English subtitles for $86. Apparently there are Blu-rays either in the works or released in Europe and Asia sans English subs and for exorbitant prices, so unfortunately only time will tell if interest in this resoundingly entertaining and influential figure in modern cinema can be revived in the West.