Nationality: Japanese. Born: Yoshihiro Ikeuchi in Kyoto, May 15, 1933; the son of film director Mansaku Itami. Education: High school. Family: Married actress Nobuko Miyamoto, two children. Career: Amateur boxer and commercial designer; became film actor, 1960 (sometimes billed as Ichizo Itami); subsequently worked as a stage actor, TV actor and director, TV chat-show host, author, translator, and chef; also edited magazine on psychoanalysis; began directing films at age 50, 1984; earned international acclaim with Tampopo, 1986; stabbed gangland-style in his home, allegedly in retaliation for his depiction of Japanese mobsters in Mimbo No Onna (Minbo, or the Gentle Art of Japanese Extortion/The Gangster's Moll/The Anti-Extortion Woman), 1992. Died: Committed suicide by leaping from the roof of the Tokyo condominium in which he resided and worked, 20 December 1997.
Films as Director and Scriptwriter:
Ososhiki (The Funeral)
Marusa no onna (A Taxing Woman)
Marusa no onna II (A Taxing Woman Returns)
A-Ge-Man (A-Ge-Man—Tales of a Golden Geisha) (+ pr)
Minbo No Onna (Minbo, Or the Gentle Art of Japanese Extortion; The Gangster's Moll; The Anti-Extortion Woman)
Daibyonin (The Last Dance; The Seriously Ill); Shizukana seikatsu (A Quiet Life)
Supa no onna (Supermarket Woman)
Marutai no onna
Films as Actor:
Kirai Kirai Kirai (Dislike) (Edagawa); Nise Daigakusei (The Phoney University Student) (Masamura); Ototo (Her Brother) (Ichikawa)
Kuroi junin no onna (The Ten Dark Women) (Ichikawa)
55 Days at Peking (Ray)
Lord Jim (Brooks)
Otoko no kao wa rirekisho (A Man's Face Is His History) (Kato)
Nihon Shunka ko (A Treatise on Japanese Bawdy Songs) (Oshima)
Imoto (My Sister, My Love) (Fujita)
Wagahai wa nwko dearu (I Am a Cat) (Ichikawa)
Kusa Meikyu (Labyrinth in the Field) (Terayama); Yugure made (Until Dusk) (Kuroki)
Sasameyuki (The Makioka Sisters) (Ichikawa); Kazoku gemu (The Family Game) (Morita)
Setouchi shonen yakyu dan (MacArthur's Children) (Shinoda)
Suito homu (Sweet Home) (Kurosawa)
By ITAMI: books—
Yoroppa taikutsu nikki (Diary of Boring Days in Europe), Tokyo, 1965.
Onnatachi yo! (Listen, Women).
Nippon sekenbanashi taikei (Panorama of Japanese Gossips). The Funeral Diary, 1985.
Enjoy French Cooking with Me, 1987.
By ITAMI: articles—
Interview in Cinéma (Paris), June 1985.
Interview with B. Meares, in Cinema Papers (Melbourne), July 1985.
Interview with Tony Rayns, in Monthly Film Bulletin (London), April 1988.
Interview with Alan Stanbrook, in Films and Filming (London), April 1988.
Interview in Films and Filming (London), April 1988.
Interview with L. Tanner, in Films in Review (New York), May 1988.
"Death & Taxes," an interview with Jeff Sipe, in Sight and Sound (London), Summer 1989.
On ITAMI: articles—
Canby, Vincent, "What's So Funny about Japan?" in New York Times, 18 June 1989.
Sipe, Jeffrey, "Death and Taxes: A Profile of Juzo Itami," in Sightand Sound (London), Summer 1989.
Sterngold, James, "A Director Boasts of His Scars, and Says He Is Right about Japan's Mob," in New York Times, 30 August 1992.
"Five Arrested in Slashing of Tokyo Film Maker," in New YorkTimes, 4 December 1992.
Kuzue, Suzuki, "Juzo Itami, director extraordinaire," in JapanQuarterly (Tokyo), July/September 1993.
Friedland, Jonathan, "Director Uses Films to Question Authority," in Far Eastern Economic Review (Hong Kong), 21 October 1993.
Obituary, in Washington Post, 22 December 1997.
Obituary, in New York Times, 22 December 1997.
Obituary, in Film-Dienst (Cologne), 20 January 1998.
Obituary, in Séquences (Haute-Ville), March-April 1998.
* * *
It is probable that Juzo Itami's films convey meanings to Japanese audiences that are not readily accessible to Westerners: they are pervasively concerned with rituals, customs, and practices that go back through centuries, and their interaction with contemporary economic and socio-political actualities. On the other hand, Itami is clearly aware of international cinematic practice, and his films seem made partly with an international audience in mind. Offered here is a westerner's assessment of the films: incomplete, but nonetheless valid.
A Westerner, then, would situate Itami somewhere between Buñuel and Almodóvar, The Funeral leaning toward the former, Tampopo toward the latter (the two Taxing Woman movies, though not at all inconsistent with these in tone and attitude, stand apart from them because of their general irreverence and skepticism). Itami has not achieved the extraordinary distinction of Buñuel at his best (but neither did Buñuel until he was very old, and then in only a very few films). On the other hand, if Tampopo, in its comic-erotic audacities and its seemingly free and inconsequential handling of narrative, evokes a heterosexual Almodóvar, the comparison works very much in Itami's favour, underlining his greater maturity, discipline, and powers of self-criticism: casual divertissement as it may seem, Tampopo manifests a security of taste, tone, and attitude to which Almodóvar, with his apparently uncritical faith in the sanctity of his own impulses, cannot yet lay claim.
The Funeral can be at once "placed" and done justice to by being juxtaposed with, on the one hand, Buñuel's late films, and, on the other, Altman's A Wedding. Superficially, it has far more in common with the latter: a satirical view of ritualized social performances and their emptiness, exposing the manifold hypocrisies they generate. Yet the complexity of attitude—the disturbing fusion of critical rigour and emotional generosity—is closer to Buñuel. A Wedding, among the worst films of one of the most uneven of directors, is more complicated than complex, its proliferation of characters and incident encompassed by Altman's contempt for all of it and his desire to assert his superiority: the simplicity and unpleasantness of the attitude precludes any possibility of genuine disturbance.
A Funeral analyses the traditional elaborate rites in documentary detail and precision, while simultaneously undercutting the reverence they are supposed to express with a pervasive sense of absurdity: the old man whose death necessitates all this ceremony, expenditure, and hypocrisy was an unlovable egoist for whom no one felt any particular affection or respect while he was alive. Yet Itami, unlike Altman, never presents his characters as merely stupid, and shows no inclination to demonstrate his superiority to them. If the tone is never not satirical, it is also never only satirical. One might single out as an example the disturbing interplay of conflicting responses generated by the scene where the son-in-law has sex in the bushes with his mistress while his wife (the dead man's daughter), fully aware of what is going on, quietly distracts herself on a swing. The juxtaposition of the seduction (treated as broad comedy) and the wife's sense of troubled hurt, which takes place in the context of death that encloses the whole action, creates a complex effect capped by the abrupt appearance of Chishu Ryu as the officiating priest, and the accumulated resonances he brings with him from so many Ozu movies. If this is not exactly the tone of Viridiana, we are at least not far from that of The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, though the comparison brings with it the reflection that Itami's film has no equivalent for the three "insert narratives" of the Buñuel and the dimension of radical pain and disturbance they introduce.
A Taxing Woman and A Taxing Woman's Return represent a remarkably successful attempt to appropriate a popular genre (criminal investigation) for purposes of radical social criticism. For the westerner, at least, they relate interestingly to the recent wave of feminist detective fiction centered on female investigators, of which Sara Paretsky's series of novels remains the most impressive example. There is a crucial difference between Paretsky's V.I. Warshawski and the heroine of Itami's movies: the former is a "private eye," a lone operator, the latter the leader of a government-employed team. Yet the parallel is strong: in both cases the woman becomes committed not simply to the solution of a specific "case" but to the exposure of the corruption and inherent criminality of the patriarchal-capitalist power structure. The radicalism has its limitations. The fact that the "taxing woman" (Itami's wife Nobuko Miyamoto) works for the government prohibits—for all the force of her personal crusade against corporate corruption—the raising of a key question: To what ends are taxes actually used within a capitalist state? The films attack the corruption but are unable to challenge the system that produces it. Itami's commitment to feminism is also somewhat dubious: one suspects that it is more an incidental offshoot of his desire to work with his extremely talented wife (a brilliant comedienne who commands rapid and subtle shifts of tone) rather than being rooted in any firm theoretical basis.
Despite these limitations, the films (together with their wide and international commercial success) are, like Paretsky's novels, sufficient proof that popular genres can be used to dramatize radical positions, and for once the sequel actually improves on the original: tougher, darker, with an altogether bleaker ending, its powerful and disturbing rigour was doubtless made possible by the success of its more lightweight predecessor.
As Itami's career progressed, his films did not lose their bite. AGe-Man (A-Ge-Man—Tales of a Golden Geisha) is a discerning examination of conventional male-female associations, depicted via the perceptions of a modern-era geisha. Minbo no onna (Minbo, or the Gentle Art of Japanese Extortion/The Gangster's Moll/The Anti-Extortion Woman), a rapier-witted satire of Japanese organized crime, follows a gritty lawyer who takes on a blackmailing band of yakuza. Several days after the Japanese premiere of Minbo no onna, Itami was severely injured when his neck and face were slashed, allegedly by members of the yakuza. The incident served as sobering proof that Itami's brand of controversial, radical filmmaking, however high-spirited, can indeed be a dangerous business.
This tragedy, however, did not alter his cinematic style. In the aftermath of the stabbing, Itami commenced pondering the insincere, impersonal manner in which hospital patients in Japan are treated. The result was Daibyonin (The Last Dance/The Seriously Ill), a black comedy about a second-rate film director who is diagnosed with cancer.
Itami lampooned consumerism in Supa no onna (Supermarket Woman), in which supermarkets compete to lure customers. In Marutai no onna (Woman of the Police Protection Program), he told the story of an actress who finds herself in the title program after witnessing a killing and being threatened by the perpetrators, members of a religious cult. Itami stated that the concept of Marutai no onna evolved from his attack by the yakuza.
One of Itami's late-career films is a departure from the tone of his other work: Shizukana seikatsu (A Quiet Life), based on the novel by Nobel laureate Kenzaburo Oe which spotlights the writer's concerns about his disabled son. Primarily, though, Itami's films maintained their satiric edge. While they are universal in that their lampoonery extends beyond cultural boundaries, they specifically ridicule the hypocrisies of contemporary Japanese society.
In late 1997, Itami learned that Flash, a weekly magazine, was about to print an allegation that the filmmaker—who still was married to Nobuko Miyamoto—had an affair with an unidentified 26-year-old woman. Two days before the magazine was to hit newsstands, Itami committed suicide. In a note explaining his action, he vociferously denied the relationship, declaring, "My death is the only way to prove my innocence."
—Robin Wood —Updated by Rob Edelman
One of Japan's few filmmakers to achieve success both at home and abroad, Juzo Itami (1933-1997) made clever, farcical satires about the rituals of everyday Japanese life. Starting his career as a director at age 50, he directed ten popular films before committing suicide at age 64.
Mansaku Itami was a renowned director of Japanese samurai movies during the 1930s. Forsaking the grand, costumed epics of the genre, he made films that took a satirical look at his country's samurai culture. One of Mansaku's sons, born Ikeuchi Yoshihiro in 1933, followed in his father's footsteps and became known in the world of film under the name Juzo Itami.
For a long time, Juzo Itami resisted the impulse to follow in his famous father's footsteps. As a young man, he spent some time as a professional boxer and worked as a manager for musical groups. Eventually he turned to writing, publishing essays on a wide range of subjects and translating works of American authors such as William Styron. This initial literary bent was shared by Itami's brother, Itami Kenzaburo Oe, who became a Nobel Prize laureate in literature. Itami slowly made the transition from printed page to celluloid by becoming the host of a television talk show.
One of several interests, cinema held a natural attraction for Itami. He began acting in films in 1960 with a role in Yasuzo Masumura's Nise Daigakusei ("A False Student"). In 1961 he appeared under the name Ichizo Atami in a joint American-Japanese production of the Pearl Buck novel The Big Wave. Later roles included parts in the American movies 55 Days at Peking (where he was listed in the credits as Ichizo Itami) in 1963 and Lord Jim. He also appeared in Japanese films that got wide distribution worldwide, such as the Japanese-French confection Private Collections in 1979 and Kazoku Geimu ("The Family Game") and Sasameyuki (released to English-speaking audiences as The Makioka Sisters or Fine Snow) in 1983. His last role as an actor was in Suito Homu ("Sweet Home") in 1989.
It was not until Itami was 50 that he turned to writing and directing his own films. His first screenwriting/directorial effort came in 1984 with Ososhiki ("The Funeral"), an instant box-office hit in Japan. The film was a black comedy mocking the way modern Japanese culture short-circuits traditional burial rites for the sake of expediency and profit. To mourn the death of an old patriarch who operated a whorehouse, his movie-star daughter (Nobuko Miyamoto) and her actor husband must leave a movie set and spend three days at an elaborate wake. Miyamoto, Itami's wife, would go on to star in all his films.
In directing Ososhiki and the films that followed— most of which Itami also wrote—he used a disarming lightheartedness and an incisive, subtle wit to dissect some of the foibles of contemporary Japanese culture. Until Itami's films became popular, Japanese audiences were more interested in Hollywood movies or animation. However, Itami quickly gained favor by breaking through the cultural taboo against poking fun at the rituals of everyday Japanese life.
Inventing the Noodle Western
Itami's second directorial effort, Tampopo, is a light and intoxicating satire about the Japanese affection for eating noodles. Its heroine is a young woman named Tampopo whose ambition is to make the perfect noodle. A cowboy-style truck driver gives her pointers on how to popularize her restaurant. While making fun of the Japanese obsession for cooking and eating in ritualized fashion, it also presented the perverse and romantic possibilities of food. Tampopo (also released as Dandelion) became a hit on the U.S. art-house circuit and sent plenty of Americans scurrying off to Japanese restaurants to sample noodle dishes. Dubbed the first "noodle Western," the film serves up a delightful stew of movie genres, from so-called spaghetti western to screwball comedy to French New Wave to the films of surrealist Luis Buauel. Episodic and unconventionally structured, the film indulges in puns, edgy humor, and wry mockery of Japan's materialistic 1980s culture. Characters who represent many distinct cultures all share an obsession with food and use food as a way to thumb their noses at the autocratic, hierarchical Japanese social structure. Critic Jonathan Crow of All Movie Guide called Tampopo "a wildly inventive, fantastically entertaining movie by a film master at the peak of his powers."
Itami's next film, A Taxing Woman, was also an international hit following its release in 1987. In it the director casts a wry eye on the Japanese penchant for tax evasion. The film's protagonist works for the national revenue collection service. She relentlessly tracks down people who cheat on their income taxes, including a millionaire with mob connections who falls in love with her. The film is both an offbeat romantic comedy and a satire of the ambivalent Japanese attitude toward authority.
The following year, Itami wrote and directed a sequel, A Taxing Woman's Return. In this comedy, Miyamoto's character exposes a group of people pretending to be members of a religious organization in order to avoid paying their taxes. She discovers the group is really a front for a corrupt land developer. The film takes potshots at many Japanese institutions, including business, education, and gender relations.
Took Bolder Jabs
Itami's first three films were very popular in Japan and also made substantial amounts of money abroad, a rare combination for a Japanese filmmaker. In his subsequent films Itami retained his sense of humor but more sharply honed his deadly satire, and his movies contained increasing doses of violence and pointed social commentary. In Ageman (Tales of a Golden Geisha), Itami turned his attention to the contemporary plight of traditional Japanese geisha girls. Miyamoto stars as Nayoko, a so-called "golden geisha" who brings good luck to whatever wealthy man contracts for her services. The plot involves several men bidding for her attentions. Finally, a man who really loves her buys her contract. While this film casts Itami's customary intense glare on Japanese customs, it has a happy ending and a fairly light touch.
Much more serious, though just as funny, was Itami's next film, Minbo; or, The Gentle Art of Japanese Extortion, released in 1992. It is a scathing satire about the Japanese mobsters known as yakuza, depicting these men not as the latter-day samurai they pretended to be but as grunting, cowardly petty crooks who travel in packs and lack the guts to back up their verbal threats. Miyamoto stars as a courageous attorney who goes after the mob and defeats them; in the process Itami virtually instructs his audience on how to defeat these extortionists.
The objects of Itami's ridicule in Minbo did not take such jabs lightly. A group of five yakuza attacked the filmmaker within days after the film first opened in Tokyo. They slashed Itami's face with knives, leaving him with a deep scar on his cheek, which he wore from that day forward as something of a badge of honor.
Scandal, Death, and Honor
In 1995, Itami directed Shizukana Seikatsu (A Quiet Life), based on a novel by his brother, Itami Kenzaburo Oe. More melodramatic than most of Itami's later films, A Quiet Life centers on a young musician who has a severe mental disability. His father is a novelist and his sister is sheltered and devoted. A patient swim instructor seems a godsend for the young man and a possible mate for his sister until he is found to have a darker side.
Toward the end of his career, Itami's films began exploring mortality. He rejected modern attitudes toward dying in hospitals and showed reverence for traditional Japanese deaths at home and surrounded by family members. The Last Dance is an almost chillingly prophetic black comedy whose protagonist is an aging, drunken film director and actor who is making a movie about a married couple stricken with cancer. He is having an affair with his on-screen co-star. Eventually, the director learns that he has stomach cancer and that his doctors, true to Japanese convention, have concealed it from him. His wife finds out about the affair and prepares to leave him, but they reconcile when she learns he is fatally ill. The director considers suicide but eventually returns home to die in the comfort of his family.
One of Itami's most successful films was 1996's The Supermarket Woman. In this movie, the proprietor of a family-owned grocery store finds himself being squeezed out by a more modern competitor. A recently widowed suburban housewife awakens him from his stupor by pointing out how poorly he has managed his business. The Supermarket Woman, directed as a farce, with food fights and a chase through a darkened store, is another of many Itami films in which actress Miyamoto plays a strong-willed, effective protagonist who turns around a difficult situation.
Itami's final film, Marutai no Onna, released in 1997, focuses on a religious cult much like Aum Shinrikyo, the apocalyptic group that released nerve gas in the Tokyo subway in 1995 killing a dozen people and sending thousands more to hospitals. A veteran stage actress named Hiwako (Miyamoto) witnesses a murder; the victim is an attorney investigating the cult. When the cult learns she will testify against them, Hiwako too becomes a target. Her opponents discover she is having an affair and they enlist tabloid newspapers to expose it and ruin her career.
In December 1997 Itami died after he leaped from the rooftop of the eight-story Tokyo condominium where he had his office and home. He had learned that the weekly Japanese pictorial news magazine Flash was planning to publish an article suggesting that he was having an affair with a 26-year-old woman. Itami left notes angrily denying the affair. He wrote that his death would prove he was innocent of the charges, adding, "I can find no other means to prove there was nothing." Flash publisher Kenji Kaneto issued a statement saying: "It is quite regrettable that the movie world has lost a great talent. But I firmly believe that the content of the article is correct."
Instead of a funeral, the family held a memorial service that stretched over many days and included a screening all of Itami's films. At the director's own request, the service did not include elaborate floral arrangements or cash gifts. Meanwhile, Itami's sensational death shocked Japan. During his short directorial career, he had become the reigning ambassador of Japanese cinema, a prolific producer of popular movies and a first-class celebrity. The circumstances of his death seemed to shed new light on several of his films, in particular The Last Dance and Marutai no Onna, both of which concern the effect of the discovery of a romantic affair on an entertainment celebrity. These films, together with Minbo no Onna, also make palpable the threat of a gifted artist's violent death at the hands of his opponents or himself. For all his efforts to expose the hypocrisy of Japanese customs, Itami in the end seemed to be stymied by some of the very values he skewered so wittily on film.
Entertainment Weekly, November 24, 1995.
Far Eastern Economic Review, October 21, 1993.
New York Times, December 22, 1997.
Variety, August 18, 1997.
"Juzo Itami," All-Movie Guide,http://www.allmovie.com/ (February 23, 2002).
"Juzo Itami," Internet Movie Database,http://us.imdb.com/(February 23, 2002). □