Where to begin with Juzo Itami

As his black comedy The Funeral arrives on Blu-ray from Criterion, we pick a path through the uproarious social satires of Tampopo director Juzo Itami.

30 May 2022

By Hayley Scanlon

The Funeral (1984) © Criterion

Why this might not seem so easy

Juzo Itami is most closely associated with his second film, 1985’s Tampopo, which proved an international hit at the time of its original release and has remained a cult classic ever since. Tampopo’s success was at least to a degree born of its seeming exoticism, as Roger Ebert’s 1987 review makes plain: “this very, very Japanese movie, which seems to make no effort to communicate to other cultures, is universally funny almost for that reason.” Much of the rest of Itami’s career was also dedicated to satirising traditional aspects of Japanese culture, yet this never found quite the same level of international acclaim.

Taking his professional name from that of his film director father Mansaku Itami, who died when he was only 13, Itami had a wandering career. He entered the film industry as an actor in 1960 and would go on to work with such prominent directors as Kon Ichikawa, Nagisa Oshima and Kaneto Shindo. He made his feature directorial debut at the comparatively late age of 50, with 1984’s The Funeral, and achieved his greatest level of domestic success with a series of films starring his wife Nobuko Miyamoto as a sometimes eccentric yet forthright woman contending with the ills of contemporary Japan. 

Minbo: The Gentle Art of Japanese Extortion (1992)

After 10 features, Itami’s career was brought to an abrupt end in 1997 by his death in somewhat mysterious circumstances after falling from the roof of his office building. A note left behind implied that he had taken his own life in order to clear his name in relation to a tabloid article alleging an affair with a young actress. Since then, there has long been speculation that his suicide was staged by yakuza, who had previously attacked him outside his home. They’d taken offence to their depiction as petty and ridiculous in 1992’s Minbo: The Gentle Art of Japanese Extortion. 

At the time of his death Itami was said to have been working on a film exploring the relationship between a prominent yakuza clan and a Buddhist cult with deep roots in the Japanese political establishment. 

The best place to start – Supermarket Woman

Part of a cycle of anarchic satires each of which (in the original Japanese) have the word ‘woman’ in the title, Itami’s 1996 comedy stars Miyamoto as one of the most derided and ignored figures in Japanese society – the middle-aged housewife. Returning to her hometown after her husband’s death, she runs into a childhood friend (Masahiko Tsugawa) and ends up helping him save his family-run independent supermarket, Honest Mart. Its rival, Discount Demon, plans to put it out of business so, in the absence of competition, it can raise prices across the board. 

Supermarket Woman (1996)

A perfect introduction to Itami’s key themes of the importance of fairness and decency, Supermarket Woman finds its heroine making use of her veteran housewife skills – which are dismissed by the generally feckless men around – to make Honest Mart the best supermarket in Japan. Not the biggest nor the most profitable, but the one with the happiest customers. 

Taking aim at nefarious cost-cutting practices in the economically straitened post-Bubble society, she issues a course correction to promise good quality produce at fair prices to struggling families, while stressing the importance of solidarity between workers and taking pride in one’s work. Complete with an unexpected car chase, the film’s zany humour isn’t quite as out there as some of Itami’s other comedies, but its gentle sense of community spirit makes it among the warmest. 

What to watch next 

The other films in the ‘woman’ cycle similarly star Miyamoto as a determined woman fixing the ills of contemporary society. In A Taxing Woman (1987) and A Taxing Woman’s Return (1988) she stars as a razor-sharp tax inspector contending with fraud, shady business practices and a yakuza-backed cult. In Minbo: The Gentle Art of Japanese Extortion she’s a fearless lawyer refusing to bow to yakuza intimidation, and in the hilarious Woman in Witness Protection (1997) she’s an actor on the run from a religious organisation after witnessing a murder. 

Part self-financed and distributed by the Art Theatre Guild, Itami’s 1984 debut The Funeral is a more subdued affair satirising the absurdity of traditional funerary rites: as it turns out, no one understands them but they must be performed perfectly anyway. Starring Miyamoto and Tsutomu Yamazaki and filmed in Itami’s own home, its farcical proceedings eventually give way to a more poignant meditation on loss and transience. 

Tampopo (1985)

And then there’s the anarchic, irrepressible comedy of Itami’s ‘ramen western’ Tampopo in which a widow’s mission to master the much-loved noodle soup is intercut with surreal vignettes revolving around contemporary food culture. Remembered as much for its unconventional eroticism, Tampopo is a celebration of everything it is to live in the full satisfaction of the appetites and the nourishment of the soul. 

Where not to start

Although Itami is famous for his satirical comedies, he also directed a pair of lighthearted melodramas.1993’s The Last Dance counts down the final year of a self-involved and lecherous film director (Rentaro Mikuni) who learns the value of life only as it’s ending, all the while being cared for by his long-suffering wife (Miyamoto). 

A Quiet Life (1995)

A Quiet Life (1995), meanwhile, draws inspiration from a novel by Itami’s brother-in-law and childhood friend Kenzaburo Oe. It heads to an unexpectedly dark place as a young woman cares for her older brother who has learning difficulties while her parents are abroad for the summer. Fine and moving films in their own right, these are outliers in Itami’s filmography, lacking the wild tonal shifts of the comedies.

Again starring Miyamoto, Tales of a Golden Geisha (1990) is also a stylistic departure, using intertitles and an anachronistic narrative recalling golden age cinema to comment on political corruption at the height of the Bubble era. Featuring some wilfully outdated sexual politics, it will play better if you have some some cultural knowledge of late-1980s scandals, such as the insider trading revelations that brought down one government and the prime minister’s entanglement with a geisha that brought down the next. 

In their insistence on fairness, as well as the absurdity of everyday life, each of his films displays Itami’s characteristic humanity, while echoing his father’s conviction that the noblest role of cinema lies in giving people comfort.

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