A Taxing Woman’s Return (マルサの女2, Juzo Itami, 1988)

Taxing Woman 2 posterA Taxing Woman introduced us to Ryoko Itakura (Nobuko Miyamoto) – an oddball detective working as an insurance inspector who met her Irene Adler in a tax dodging corporate gangster with a limp. A year later she’s back, still the only woman working with the tax inspectorate and apparently still a dogged pursuer of those who would seek to defraud the Japanese government of its rightful earnings. Ryoko may have been a stickler for the rules who applied the same dog with a bone approach to a mom and pop store chowing down on its own supplies as to a dodgy yakuza led conspiracy, but she also believed in justice – something which stands her in good stead when she rubs up against a dodgy cult which, again, is a yakuza front but adds insult to injury by deliberately manipulating the vulnerable.

The action opens with some kids poking at the dead body of a “landshark” floating in a pond before flashing to a meeting of officials sucking crab meat from the shell and wondering what they’re going to do about this land they need cleared now their heavy is out of the picture. The corrupt politician from the first film, Urushibara (Takeya Nakamura), is apparently still involved in semi-legal land deals but palms the assignment off on a colleague. The big wigs need to empty a dated housing complex on some valuable land so they can build a vanity skyscraper – office space apparently being scarce in mid bubble Tokyo.

To do this they enlist the services of dodgy cult leader Onizawa (Rentaro Mikuni) and his troop of yakuza goons. Most of the tenants have already signed but they have three key holdouts – a diner owner clinging on to the family legacy, a stubborn paparazzo, and an intellectual professor who heads up the housing association. Unlike the yakuza of Taxing Woman, these guys have not reformed – they are the new/old style of lawless thugs who are perfectly prepared to threaten women and children to get their own way. Making it impossible for the tenants to stay through intimidation and noise torture, they stoop to blackmail to seal the deal.

Despite arriving only a year after A Taxing Woman, Taxing Woman’s Return (マルサの女2, Marusa no Onna 2) takes place in a much darker, though more obviously comedic, world. Whereas the earlier film adopted a noticeably ambivalent attitude to the tax inspectors and the enterprising gangsters, the villains of A Taxing Woman’s Return are so heinous and morally bankrupt as to be entirely indefensible even if the inspectorate takes a turn for the bumbling to compensate. The “cult” is, of course, merely a convenient money laundering front and tax dodge for the yakuza – religious organisations are exempt from taxation in the vast majority of cases which may be why the local tax office records hundreds of registered “religious bodies” in its jurisdiction alone. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its loyal followers, often vulnerable people looking for spiritual fulfilment but being bled dry by the money hungry cultists while the leader’s wife swans around in sables costing more than the average annual salary. A desperate devotee in need of a loan puts his own teenage daughter up as collateral only to see her raped by Onizawa, eventually becoming pregnant by him at only 16 years of age and thereafter becoming his devoted concubine in a bizarre instance of Stockholm Syndrome.

Yet for all the background darkness of weird cultists and nasty yakuza backed up by corrupt and venial politicians, Itami ups the cartoonish sense of the absurd with our hero Ryoko clambering over rooftops to listen in to the bad guys while her boss throws himself down flights of stairs and has to battle piercing sirens to get into the villains’ secret vault. It is however a dark humour as the opening makes plain with its troupe of little children staring at the strange shape floating in the water – a motif later repeated when a yakuza is gunned down in the street only for another group of children to pour over him as he expires, a single tear rolling down his cheek. The original spongy white body gives way to the businessmen sucking spongy white crab out its shell while insensitively discussing the late land shark, and the yakuza are unafraid to deploy a maggot infested severed hand (thankfully a fake picked up from a friend who makes horror movies) to convince the tenants they mean business.

At the end of A Taxing Woman, the gangster and the inspector reached something of a truce but one which came down, broadly, on the side of right. This time things aren’t quite so simple. The conspiracy is bigger and deeper, stretching all the way into the Diet and about more than just office space in still developing Tokyo. Onizawa, regarding himself as public servant, tries to say he did it all for his country, that if someone didn’t get their hands dirty Tokyo would be eclipsed by Hong Kong or Seoul. A post-war justification for a bubble era problem, but one that takes us straight back to the first film in Onizawa’s second proposition that only through money does he truly feel “immortal”. He may be a liar and a cheat, but he’s only a symptom of rapidly spreading infection, one which Ryoko and her team are powerless to cure, trapped on the wrong side of the fence while the bad guys build monuments to economic hubris, indulging in vanity in an era of bad faith which is about to be brought to a rather abrupt close.


Currently available to stream in the US/UK via FilmStruck.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Ghost Soup (Shunji Iwai, 1992)

Christmas is a little different in Japan. Fried chicken takes the place of turkey with all the trimmings and even if Santa still makes his rounds for excited children, it’s couples who invest the most in the big day. That doesn’t mean however that you can’t still take time out for a spooky tale or two in the best European tradition though Ghost Soup turns out to have a more melancholy if ultimately heartwarming intention than your average round of Christmas ghost stories. Shunji Iwai, later a giant of ‘90s Japanese cinema, got an early start with this seasonal tale which runs just under an hour and was made for television as part of a series of food themed dramas but even if the production values are minimal and the camera work unremarkable, Ghost Soup exists firmly within Iwai’s wider cinematic universe.

The tale begins on Christmas Eve. Families are eagerly walking home with treats and Christmas trees, but poor old Ichiro (Hiroyuki Watari) is in the process of trying to move apartments. He was supposed to be moving in mid-January, but he’s been bumped from his current accommodation after the person who was supposed to be taking over his lease was forced out of their current apartment because the person they were renting from has come back from abroad and needs his house back. Luckily, the apartment Ichiro is moving into is already empty so he’s moving in early, but there’s a hitch. It’s not just that it’s very inconvenient to move house on Christmas Eve, Ichiro’s new apartment has already been earmarked for an annual Christmas party hosted by a bunch of ghosts and they don’t take kindly to having their venue so rudely invaded.

The first half of the film revolves around the comical actions of the ghosts as they try to keep Ichiro out of their party though it also provides the opportunity to introduce other vaguely ghoulish elements of the business of moving including a visit from the NHK man and a tenacious newspaper salesman not to mention a Jehovah’s Witness. Despite the fact that Ichiro has apparently landed himself in this situation by being “too nice” he manages to get rid of most of his unwelcome visitors by forcing himself to close the door on them even if he seems to feel bad about doing it. The ghosts are a slightly different matter.

Nana (Ranran Suzuki), a feisty teenage girl, and Mel (Dave Spector) – an American with excellent Japanese and a very strange speaking voice who seems to be dressed like world war two bomber crew, are having a Christmas Party for the area’s local ghosts of which there seem to be a few including Private Sakata (Ken Mitsuishi) who has been patiently standing guard ever since he passed away during the war. Nana’s “Ghost Soup” has become a Christmas fixture and is filled with warmth and happiness designed to help vengeful spirits move past their various grudges so that they can finally “move on”.

When the ghosts dress up like Santa and put Ichiro in their sack to dump him in an unfamiliar part of town in the hope he won’t make it back before their party, he ends up wandering through sections of his memory, remembering paths and houses from some forgotten time and noticing other “ghostly” presences he might not normally pay much attention to. As it turns out, Ichiro has tasted Ghost Soup before, long ago in childhood when he himself had a conversation with one recently deceased on a melancholy Christmas Eve.

Little Ichiro seemed very puzzled that so many people were lining up for just a cup of soup when they don’t even get any toys, but was somehow moved by the curious warmth of the small gathering. Despite his protestations of being “too nice” in agreeing to move early, Ichiro has not been a very good neighbour so far – despatching each of his visitors and trying to evict the ghostly presence intent on colonising his new flat, but eventually gets into the Christmas Spirit and agrees to help the ghosts make sure the soup gets those who need it. Tokyo it seems is a city of lonely souls, both living and dead, in which a bowl of hot soup might be the only highlight in a cold and unforgiving (after)life.

Made for television on a low budget and with a poor quality video camera, Ghost Soup is of its time but also bears out Iwai’s cheerfully surreal world view in which the city is peopled with the melancholy but protected by friendly guardians fostering a community spirit which might help to exorcise some of that existential loneliness. Ghost Soup is in many ways the perfect Christmas confection – a little bit sad, but sweet if strange and ultimately heartwarming in its embracing of the true Christmas spirit of compassion togetherness.


Closing scene (no subtitles)