Juzo Itami’s mother inflicted him on the world on May 15th, 1933. Sadly, he chose to show mercy upon that world on December 20, 1997. In the interim, Juzo Itami directed some of the most biting satire ever to hit the movie screen. He was wonderful! Shall we describe a few of his better films?
(Damn right, there are gonna be spoilers!)
In Itami’s first film, Chizuko (played by, Nobuko Miyamoto) and her husband Wabisuke (Tsutomu Yamazaki) must hold a services for her recently departed father. THE FUNERAL (1984) takes us through the next three days in the life of this couple and their family. The Shinto traditions may seem strange to those of us unfamiliar with Japanese custom. The experience of loss and the awkwardness of dealing with it in public will not.
The first obstacle Chizuko and Wabisake face certainly rings true for me. Amidst their sadness and loss, our lovely couple must learn quickly what is expected of them during the coming funeral. Luckily, they have a tape which provides plenty of good advice on what to say to guests. With wooden precision, the couple practice their lines, adding a trace of performance anxiety to their grief. The first guests to arrive express their condolences fittingly enough in language perfectly matching the suggestions of the tape.
Itami captures the emotional cycles of a funeral with marvelous sensitivity. One does not stay sad for three days. So when those first guests arrive, the family is in the midst of fond remembrances, laughing and smiling at stories of the departed. then suddenly there they are, outsiders who have themselves screwed up the courage to come and be part of this terrible event, …and suddenly the smiles seem out of place. In but a moment, grief returns to the family and the chain of events continues as one might expect.
…well, for the most part.
This is a slow moving film, one which invites you to linger on the details. In one of my favorite scenes, the whole family kneels down in prayer. As incense burn and a priest chants, the camera pans slowly across the backside of the grieving family members. Moving from character to character, this simple shot provides us with a wonderful study in discipline and loss of cultural knowledge. The elderly are perfectly still, their feet tucked neatly behind them. The middle-aged get by with a little fidgeting here and there. The children? Their posture is a train wreck. (A Japanese high-speed train wreck.) And the whole scene gets comes to a climax when the phone rings in the midst of this solemn ritual. It just keeps ringing. When a family friend finally gets up to answer, he quickly finds that his legs have fallen asleep, and, ….well, it’s just a little awkward.
As a side note: I should mention that I have shown this movie to my students back in Chinle a couple of times. I should say that Navajo ceremonies are all-night affairs during which people are expected to sit cross-legged with their back against the wall of a Hogan. This scene always earned a lot of laughter, and more than a few knowing smiles.
Alright, I’ve ruined enough of this movie for those who haven’t seen it yet. If you want to know more, then you shall have to watch it yourself!
Itami’s second movie is TAMPOPO (1985), which has been described aptly enough as “the first noodle western.” The connection is firmly established as we are introduced to Goro (Tsutomu Yamazaki again), a truck driver in a cowboy hat, his big-rig sporting a set of steer horns. When Goro and his side-kick stop at an isolated noodle stand for dinner, he gets in a fight with a number of locals. Goro awakens to find himself sleeping the damage off at the home of the shop owner Tampopo (Nobuko Miyamoto).
Yes, it’s the same couple playing the leads here. The lovely Miyamoto was in fact Itami’s wife. As to Yamazaki, I should think the wisdom of casting him in a lead role speaks for itself.
Let us get back to this wonderful movie!
When Tampopo asks Goro how he likes her noodles, our straight-shooting hero cannot tell a lie. His critique is as thorough as it is devastating, and with that he establishes not only her failure as a cook, but his own mastery of the subject. Ashamed and impressed, Tampopo begs Goro to teach her how to make a proper bowl of ramen. Reluctantly, he accepts to task of teaching her.
What follows is a perfect parody of a movie theme familiar in both westerns and samurai films, the process by which a true master trains a promising young student. Goro does not merely teach Tampopo how to cook, he subjects her to strenuous exercise, helps to her to put together the perfect recipe, and (with the help of another character) redesigns her whole shop. The two of them will use bribery, espionage, and outright heroism in the effort to get everything just right. At the films end, Goro and his sidekick leave Tampopo with her newly renovated shop full of well-earned and very happy customers, driving their big-rig into the sunset.
I am going to resist the temptation to describe any of the scenes here in great detail, but I must say that it is the details that make this movie wonderful. Food does not simply supply the central plot; it serves as the central focus of every single scene. If the characters are not talking about food, they are preparing it, or they are eating it. Most scenes in this film manage to do include all of the above.
If you watch this film, you will hungry when it’s over. Don’t try to fight it! You could stuff yourself full with a feast and watch this movie afterwards. You WILL be hungry again at its conclusion.
It really is in the details of each individual scene that Itami’s humor takes on its biting edge. Itami wanders off of the central plot several times during the course of Tampopo. In some cases the camera literally veers off and follows an apparent extra into the next scene. And in those scenes, everything from the culture of Connoisseurship, to proper etiquette, and even the sanctity of motherhood fall prey to Itami’s ironic treatment. If his main plot-line is a gentle ode to the genres of Samurai films and American westerns, many of these particular scenes are brutally satirically send-ups of Japanese society. Note a few of those send-ups will ring true for the rest of us as well.
Most people do seem to remember the sex scenes (and no I am not telling you why). You may call me a bastard if you wish. I don’t mind.
Tampopo is easily my favorite film of all time. It stole that spot from A Clockwork orange the day I saw it well over two decades past; it has remained there ever since.
As one might expect, the lovely Miyomoto plays the lead in Itami’s next film as well, A TAXING WOMAN (1987). As a relentless tax inspector in a land where cheating on one’s taxes is expected, Ryōko Itakura (Miyomoto) has her work cut out for her when she goes after Hideki Gondō (played by… Do I really need to say it? Come on, pay attention!). Gondo owns a string of unsavory hotels, and Itakura is suspicious that he is not paying his full share of the tax rate. So, the stage is set for a showdown.
Itakura initially fails to turn up any evidence of tax evasion, a fact which is almost suspicious in itself. …okay, let’s just drop the ‘almost'; it just is. Naturally, she redoubles her efforts. In time, she and Gondo will develop a grudging respect for one another, treating their conflict as though it were a strategy game and each of them a master in their own right.
I will not tell you who wins.
I must admit that I have not seen the sequel to this film, A Taxing Woman’s Return. I think that shall have to go on my list of summer projects.
One could hardly describe MINBO NO ONNA (THE GENTLE ART OF JAPANESE EXTORTION) (1992) as Itami’s greatest film, but it is an amazing accomplishment in its own right. This time, Itami’s target proved to be none other than the Japanese mob. Miyomoto plays a lawyer, Mahiru Inoue. Inoue leads a small team of inexperienced employees in a campaign to thwart a gang of yakuza in its efforts to extort money from a large hotel. It is a long and difficult battle, but she emerges victorious.
What is most striking about this movie is the portrayal of yakuza. Gone are the pretensions to honor and nobility. Forgotten are the images of modern-day samurai or highly-skilled ninjas. These men are simply thugs, brutal, vicious, cruel, and cowardly. Indeed, the yakuza of this film carry little or no redeeming qualities. The one-dimensionality of these villains would normally strike me as a real flaw, and perhaps it is. But set against the backdrop of countless movies depicting mobsters (yakuza among them) in glowing terms, I could not help feeling proud to see someone who had the courage to portray them without all the flattery that usually accompanies the subject. It is a portrayal that took great courage to put on the screen.
Sadly, I do not think Hollywood will be doing anything like this in the near future. The whole of American cinema seems to have a big old girlie-crush on the mob, and it won’t be growing out of it soon.
Sadder still, Itami seems to have paid the price for his courage. He was attacked, beaten and slashed in retaliation for making Minbo. As Itami lay in the hospital recovering from his wounds, the public outcry led to crackdown on criminal activities associated with the yakuza. Rumors that his death by apparent suicide may actually have been a murder circulate to this day. The facts surrounding Itami’s death are something of a mystery at this point. The only thing for certain about it is that it came way to soon, except perhaps for the yakuza.
But of course today is not Itami’s Death Day. It is his birthday. And it is a damned good day to celebrate the work of this incredibly brilliant film-maker.
Treat yourself to something brilliant today and watch Tampopo.
Be sure to leave room for desert.