Juzo Itami - Director

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 )


Tampopo ( Dandelion )


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 Sight and Sound (London), Summer 1989.

Efron, Sonni, "Japanese Director Juzo Itami Recovering after Gang-land-Style Stabbing at Home," in Los Angeles Times , 26 May 1992.

Juzo Itami
Juzo Itami

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 York Times , 4 December 1992.

Kuzue, Suzuki, "Juzo Itami, director extraordinaire," in Japan Quarterly (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 SĂ©quences (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

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