Jûzô Itami

A tragic end belies a life led with purpose. The son of a successful filmmaker, Juzo Itami made his name acting in television and films before making a late career shift into screenwriting and directing at age 50. Known to choose the subjects of his films through everyday observations, he often followed up significant events in his life with films depicting idiosyncrasies that he felt were unique to the evolving Japanese culture. He was the definition of an iconoclast who took the great Molière’s words to heart, “castigat ridendo mores” (criticise customs through humour).

Attributed as a key figure in the re-emergence of the latest wave of Japanese films that marked their presence outside of Japan, Itami proved to be a force of energy and originality that revived the country’s stake in international cinema during the 1980s. Critics and audiences alike were simpatico when it came to his clever and keenly entrenched satires of his country’s societal misgivings and he quickly became the most famous modern director of his generation. Throughout his directorial oeuvre of 10 films (list at the end), which stretched from 1984 to his final film in 1997, they were popular both domestically and maintained a staunch international following.

Every so often, Itami was compared to his then recently deceased French counterpart, Jacques Tati, who utilised similar styles of critiquing their society’s cultural transition while crafting films with trenchant distinctions in humour and sadness. They also had almost similar, brief numbers of films that they directed and wrote before their death and they also used similar elements in the majority of their films. Itami cast his wife, Nobuko Miyamoto in every one of his 10 films. She was synonymous with Itami’s fans across the world. Her versatility with melodrama and her impeccable comic timing proved invaluable to her husband’s unique blend of the two genres as she portrayed characters that have been labeled as an “Everywoman” role. These roles laid the groundwork for a much more diverse representation of genders in Japan’s films as Itami’s women were usually strong, smart and gifted with moral fortitude when faces with tremendous adversity.

A common misconception outside of Japan would be that Tampopo (1985) was Itami’s career-making debut. And although Tampopo (1985) is his most successful and critically acclaimed to date, his first feature was actually a humourous look at the Japanese attitudes towards death in The Funeral (1984), which touched on the generational gap opposing the stringently revered traditional values of the elders and the often-callous modernism of their children. Tampopo (1985) followed it to immense and unexpected success outside of its native land. The gastronomic “noodle western” as Itami himself had coined it, was an episodic venture (which formed the structure of his other films) of a restaurateur determined to create the best possible noodle for the best possible noodle eatery. Consumed with quirky characters and their own respective obsessions, it was a surreal fusion of wink-wink ribald imagery that was obstinately Japanese and a cheeky lampoon on the Leone “spaghetti westerns” that showed early signs of his development to an auteur. The public was now aware of Itami’s established comedic style and free-wielding use of the narrative and they wanted more.

After a string of successful hits such as A Taxing Woman (1987) (A Taxing Woman) and its sequel came one of Itami’s most intriguing films to date in Minbo also commonly held as Minbô no onna (1992) (The Anti-Extortion Woman). It was scathing attack on the pride of the Japanese Yakuza through the film’s story of a spirited female protagonist skewering and training feeble men to fight back against the criminal elements through courage and determination instead of resorting to violence. The film’s realistic content apparently hit a sore spot with real gang members who waited outside of Itami’s home and slashed him across his face that left him in the hospital. During his recuperation at the hospital, he found material for his next feature in Daibyônin (1993) about a dying film director accepting with his illness amidst an uncaringly cold healthcare system with an ironic look at infidelity and suicide that was a precursor to the rest of Itami’s life. Still haunted and suitably outraged by the attack following Minbo, Itami’s final film in 1997 was the black comedy Marutai no onna (1997). It was his ode to freedom of expression that revolved around an actress witnessing a cult murder and becomes a target, both in the media and for hired guns.

On December 20, 1997, the 64-year-old Itami was found seriously injured on the street below his office and later died in the hospital. A suicide note was left behind by Itami that expressed innocence to a tabloid’s accusation of his infidelity with a younger woman. Itami’s energy and aversion to jadedness in his long career in films would have no doubt been still at use to this day if he was alive.

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