A Taxing Woman (マルサの女, Juzo Itami, 1987)

A Taxing Woman posterIn bubble era Japan where the champagne flows and the neon lights sparkle all night long, even the yakuza are incorporating. Having skewered complicated social mores in The Funeral and then poked fun at his nation’s obsession with food in Tampopo, Juzo Itami turns his attention to the twin concerns of money and collective responsibility in the taxation themed procedural A Taxing Woman (マルサの女, Marusa no Onna). Once again starring the director’s wife Nobuko Miyamoto, A Taxing Woman is an accidental chronicle of its age as Japanese society nears the end of a period of intense social change in which acquisition has divorced mergers, and individualism has replaced the post-war spirit of mutual cooperation.

Ryoko Itakura (Nobuko Miyamoto), a single mother and assistant in the tax office, has a keen eye for scammers. She demonstrates this on a stakeout with a younger female colleague in which she keeps a shrewd eye on the till at her local cafe and comes to the conclusion that they’ve been running a system where they don’t declare all of their cheques. Running her eyes over the accounts of a mom and pop grocery store, she notices some irregularities in the figures and figures out the elderly couple feed themselves from the supplies for the shop but don’t “pay” themselves for their own upkeep. That might seem “perfectly reasonable” to most people, but it’s technically a small form of “embezzlement” and Ryoko doesn’t like figures which don’t add up. Seeing as the couple probably didn’t realise what they were doing was “wrong” she lets them off, this time, as long as they go by the book in the future. A more complicated investigation of a pachinko parlour finds a more concrete form of misappropriation, but Ryoko is fooled by the owner’s sudden collapse into inconsolable grief after being caught out and leaves him in the capable hands of his confused accountant.

Nevertheless, Ryoko may have met her match in sleezy corporate yakuza Hideki Gondo (Tsutomu Yamazaki). Dressing in a series of sharp suits, Gondo walks with a pronounced limp that hints at a more violent past but as his rival from the Nakagawa gang points out, violence is a relic of a bygone era – these days gangsters go to jail for “tax evasion” as means of furthering their “business opportunities” and facilitating ongoing political corruption. Gondo’s business empire is wide ranging but mainly centres on hotels, which is how he arouses Ryoko’s interest. She looks at the numbers, does a few quick calculations, and realises either the business isn’t viable or the correct figures aren’t being reported. Ryoko doesn’t like it when the books don’t balance and so she sets her sights on the seedy Gondo, but quickly discovers she has quite a lot in common with her quarry.

Itami was apparently inspired to make A Taxing Woman after the success of Tampopo shoved him into a higher tax bracket. Given Japanese taxes (at the time) were extremely high, getting around them had become something of a national obsession even if, in contrast to the preceding 30 years or so, there was plenty of money around to begin with. More than the unexpected tendency towards civil disobedience the times seemed to cultivate, Itami homes in on the increasingly absurd desire for senseless acquisition the bubble era was engendering. Thus Gondo who owns a large family home well stocked with symbols of his rising social status, also occupies a bachelor pad where he keeps a mistress which reflects the gaudy excess of the age right down to its random stuffed hyena. Nevertheless when one of the tax clerks asks for some advice as to how to have it all, Gondo replies that that’s easy – to save money, you simply avoid spending it. Gondo lets his glass run over and delights in licking the edges. It’s all about delayed gratification, apparently, and having a secret room full of gold bars to gaze at in order to relieve some of that anxiety for the future.

Gondo, like many of his ilk, has “diversified” – yakuza are no longer thuggish gangsters but incorporated organisations operating “legitimate” businesses through “illegitimate” means. Thus we first find him using a nurse who allows herself to be molested by an elderly, terminally ill client whose identity they will steal to found a company they can quickly dissolve when he dies to shift their assets around and avoid the tax man. Later he pulls another real estate scam by pressing a desperate family but his real focus is the love hotels, whose slightly embarrassing existence ensures that not many come poking around. Ryoko, however, is unlikely to let such a large scam slide and delights as much in closing loopholes as Gondo does in finding them. Noticing a kindred spirit, Gondo quite openly asks his new tax inspector “friend” what she’d think if he married his mistress, gave her all his money, and divorced her – divorce proceeds are after all tax free. Sounds great, she tells him, as long as you trust your wife not to skip town with all the doe.

Ryoko, a modern woman of the bubble era, single and career driven, is a slightly odd figure with her officious approach to her job and unforgiving rigour. Unlike her colleague who dresses in the glamorous and gaudy fashions of the times, Ryoko wears dowdy suits and her mentor boss is always reminding her about her “bed hair”, meanwhile she stays late at the office and offers instructions to her five year old son over the phone as to how to microwave his dinner. Though there is another woman working with her at the tax office, when she’s finally promoted to full tax inspector status she finds herself in a room full of guys who apparently hardly ever go home. On her first job she’s only really brought along because she’s a woman and they want to threaten a mob boss’ mistress with a strip search to find a missing key for a safety deposit box. The mistress, however, tries to throw them off the sent by publicly stripping off and encouraging them to check her “cavity” if they’re so keen to find this key, only for Ryoko to find it under the sink while all the guys are busy being shocked. Ryoko’s methods are occasionally as underhanded as Gondo’s and, like his schemes, built on gaming the system but she’s certainly a force to be reckoned with for those considering defrauding the Japanese government.

Gondo’s schemes excel because they aren’t entirely illegal, only clever ways of manipulating the system, but they’re also a symptom of a large conspiracy which encompasses improprieties right up the chain as banks, corporations, and politicians are all part of the same dark economy managed by a corporatising yakuza. Gondo takes frequent calls from a local representative who often “helps him out”. Later the same representative tries to put pressure on the tax office to back off, but Ryoko’s boss points out that he doesn’t need to because the press are already on the story so he should probably get started on his damage control rather than bothering public servants. Gondo and Ryoko, perhaps as bad as each other, lock horns in a battle wills but discover a strange degree of respect arising between them in having discovered a worthy adversary. There’s something undeniably absurd in Ryoko’s firm determination to catch out struggling businesses and the confused elderly with the same tenacity as taking on a yakuza fronted conspiracy, and there’s something undeniably amusing in Gondo’s attempts to beat the man by playing him at his own game, but the overall winner is Itami who once again succeeds in skewering his nation’s often contradictory social codes with gentle humour and a dispassionate, forgiving eye.


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

Original trailer (no subtitles)

March Comes in Like a Lion (三月のライオン, Hitoshi Yazaki, 1992)

March comes in like a lionIce in the heart of summer pins its hopes on spring in the second feature from Hitoshi Yazaki. Afternoon Breezes, Yazaki’s debut, chronicled forbidden love becoming dangerous obsession as a naive young woman falls for her straight roommate but has no mechanism by which to expresses herself in a society that deems her feelings so taboo as to not quite have the words to describe them. March Comes in Like a Lion (三月のライオン, Sangatsu no Lion) again focusses on an illicit connection but this time an incestuous one in which a strange young woman realises a life long crush on her older brother by telling him that she is his girlfriend after he wakes up from a coma with amnesia.

Natsuko (lit. summer’s child) told her brother, Haruo (lit. boy of spring), that she would one day be his wife when she was just seven and he eight. Years later, Haruo (Cho Bang-ho) has been involved in a motorcycle accident and lost his memory. Natsuko (Yoshiko Yura) seizes her chance. Taking the name of “Ice”, she tells her brother that she is his lover and they live together in a barely furnished apartment on the upper floor of a tenement building. Maintaining the ruse, Ice nurses Haruo back to health, watching his progression day by day and dreading the moment he might finally remember who she really is.

Ice has rented the apartment for two months only – putting an expiry date on her true love dream. She’s done this mostly to avoid taking her brother back to their childhood home, fearing it might jog his memory and wanting avoid the prying eyes of friendly neighbours they’ve known all their lives. Her love is, by the common values of her society, against nature yet Ice surrenders to it anyway, fully expecting the “storm” of March between the seasons of ice and flowers. Flowers here may be warmth or death, but Ice is prepared to wait for her heart to melt and become the summer once again.

The early ‘90s was a time of walls falling, for good or ill, though the Tokyo Ice inhabits is a cold and frozen place. One of loneliness and confusion where busyness has given way to ennui and listless lethargy. Natsuko (and Ice too) has been surviving on casual prostitution, swiping the fashionable clothes of a client to give to Haruo and bestowing on him his curiously mad hatter-like appearance, as if he’d just stepped out of a silent movie. Ice walks around with all her worldly goods stored inside a giant cool box which emits dry ice every time she opens it. She has a compulsion for eating ice lollies and fondling the fridge freezer that is the only appliance in the sparse apartment apart from a circus-like ceiling lamp which rests on its top. Ice does not really want to melt, she tries to keep herself cool, resisting the heat of passion which may reduce her frozen paradise to watery tears, but knows that her present life is but a dream, a lingering state of limbo which must one day end.

While Ice keeps things cool, Haruo gets a job in demolition. Post-bubble the city is failing, crumbling ominously to the ground. Where once there was life and creation, now there is only death and decay. Mirroring his sister, Haruo takes things apart and throws them away but becomes oddly fascinated by the looking glass. Looking at himself, through himself, Haruo searches for the keys to his existence. As his relationship with Ice becomes physical, his mind begins to turn. Haruo regains the power of speech, remembers there was someone he loved, and awakens to the coming spring.

Ice wants to know her love can last – she looks for proof everywhere. An elderly couple – she cutting his hair while he remains less steady, still in love forty years later. The housewife next-door sending her husband off to work in the middle of the night and talking of children. Polaroids and fairy tales, white rabbits and magic girls – her world is fantasy, she is Alice adrift in Wonderland. Natsuko dares to dream a dream of love in a world which is collapsing before her eyes yet she does for a time at least win it. Filled with whimsical poetry and beautifully composed images and set to a nostalgic folk score by Bolivian Rockers, March Comes in Like a Lion is a tender, touching romance made all the stranger and sadder for its unusual genesis.


Short scene from the film (English subtitles)

Hatsukoi (First Love) (初恋, Yukinari Hanawa, 2006)

hatsukoiThe 300 Million Yen Affair is one of the most famous and intriguing unsolved mysteries in Japan, not least because the missing cash has been lying dormant somewhere, apparently untouched, ever since that fateful day back in 1968. Seeing as the true story has never been discovered, the crime has taken on legendary status and become the focus of many kinds of fiction. Misuzu Nakahara’s fictionalised autobiography is just one of these as she retroactively claims responsibility for the robbery as a teenage girl in love with a detached revolutionary.

Misuzu (Aoi Miyazaki) begins her tale a couple of years before the crime as she lives a lonely and introverted life in the house of her uncle, her father having died and her mother apparently absconded with her older brother in tow but leaving her behind. It’s her 16th birthday, but no one cares. Soon enough she starts hanging around a shady jazz bar before another woman convinces her to come inside and join their group of layabout beatniks – a group which is actually lead by her estranged older brother, Ryo (Masaru Miyazaki). These are the heady days of students protests – against the old order, against the ANPO treaty, against the war in Vietnam, against just about everything. Misuzu grows closer to one of their number, the quiet and mysterious Kishi (Keisuke Koide), who has a proposition for her….

Hatsukoi (AKA First Love, 初恋) is a film which is thick with period detail from the authentically smokey, sweaty jazz bar and its counterculture denizens to the nostalgic atmosphere and 1960s street scenes. However, evoking Misuzu’s own sense of ennui, director Yukinari Hanawa opts for a detached, dispassionate tone which is entirely at odds with the otherwise searing, youth on fire tension of the time period. Misuzu is always on the edges of things, younger than the other members of the group she feels as if she’s merely being permitted to stay and listen rather than invited to participate. Nevertheless, even if it’s the case that Misuzu is a by nature a passive person, the film pushes the intense nature of the social revolution going on all around her into mere background, squandering its power to bring out the sense of passion that the film feels as if it needs.

At heart, the robbery is something of a mcguffin as the real story is the true love tragedy hinted at in the title. Misuzu and Kishi grow closer through their plotting of the crime which is born of his desire to commit a different kind of revolutionary act. The money is intended to pay the bonuses of Toshiba employees and Kishi feels the best way to make a protest against economic inequality and the power of large corporations is to hit them in the finances. Misuzu plays her part well enough and the robbery comes off OK despite minor hitches allowing only a brief honeymoon period for its would be Bonnie and Clyde before history begins to move forward and eventually rips them apart. For Misuzu the robbery becomes the defining event of her youth and the birth of the love that she seemingly cannot let go. After this the jazz club is over, the protest movement dies as do some of the protestors, or else they move on to more conventional lives. Not quite a coming of age, but a death of youth before it had hardly begun.

Some injuries never heal, says the kindly old man who teaches Misuzu how to drive. A prescient remark if ever there was one. Misuzu seems locked within this brief period of her youth, before her friends died, left, or disappeared once the turbulent atmosphere of protest and revolution gave way to the consumerist 1970s and everyone forgot about the necessity for social change in the hurry to make money.

Hatsukoi becomes less a about the first love itself than about the period that surrounds it. The love was lost, but so was the bubble in which Misuzu had begun to define herself as a young woman. What Hatsukoi lacks is a sense of personal tragedy, of a soul crushing, spiritual death which locks each of the group members into their own tragic fates and seems somehow dictated despite their insistence on defining themselves in the new, youth centric world. Often beautifully photographed, Hatsukoi’s air of desolation and cold, detached tone weaken its ability to engage making its painful end of youth journey all seem rather dull.


Hatsukoi was released with English subtitles on blu-ray in Taiwan, and on DVD in Hong Kong though both editions now appear to be OOP.

Unsubtitled trailer:

Nobody to Watch Over Me (誰も守ってくれない, Ryoichi Kimizuka, 2009)

Nobody to Watch Over MeWhen a crime has been committed, it’s important to remember that there may be secondary victims whose lives will be destroyed even if they themselves had no direct involvement in the case itself. This is even more true in the tragic case that person who is responsible is themselves a child with parents and siblings still intent on looking forward to a life that their son or daughter will now never lead. This isn’t to place them on the same level as bereaved relatives, but simply to point out the killer’s family have also lost a child who they have every right to grieve for, though their grief will also be tinged with guilt and shame.

Nobody to Watch Over Me (誰も守ってくれない, Dare mo Mamotte Kurenai) takes the example of one particular case in which an 18 year old boy has brutally stabbed two little girls in a park and then returned home as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. After the boy is arrested, his family is caught up in a firestorm of police and press interest, barely able pause and come to terms with the surreal events that are taking place. No sooner has their son been dragged off in handcuffs than a troupe from the family court arrives with pre-printed documents which will arrange for a divorce and remarriage between the parents so that they can revert to the wife’s maiden name in an attempt to avoid the stigma of being related to a child killer. After being bamboozled into signing a number of papers with barely any explanation the family is then split up for questioning and taken to separate locations to try and throw off the press.

Grizzled detective Katsuura (Koichi Sato) is charged with looking after the murderer’s younger sister, Saori (Mirai Shida) – a 15 year old high school student. Katsuura is enduring some familial conflict of his own and was due to be taking a family holiday to try and work things out, so he’s a little distracted and put out about needing to shield this quite uncooperative teenager from the baying masses. He’s also suffering a degree of PTSD from a traumatic incident some years previously in which a case he was involved in went horribly wrong resulting in the death of a small boy. Understandably, Saori is in a state of shock, left alone with strangers to try and cope with this extremely stressful situation and unwilling to betray her brother by submitting to the police’s constant demands for information.

The police themselves aren’t always the benign and and comforting presence one might hope for on such an occasion as Katsuura’s superior has one eye on a possible promotion if he can exploit this high profile case for all its worth and is intent on pressing this innocent teenage girl as if she were some kind of war criminal. The family are treated with a degree of suspicion and contempt, as if they were directly or indirectly complicit in the violence created by their son or brother.

In actuality, there may be a grain of truth in this as the film also begins to offer some social critique of the modern family and the pressures placed on young people in the contemporary world. When questioned about their son, the mother remains more or less silent but the father angrily replies that he raised his son “strictly”. The family had high expectations and didn’t take academic failure lightly. From middle school onwards, they kept their son at home to study allowing him little outlet for anything else and, it seems, he was sometimes physically disciplined for a lack of progress.

Katsuura’s family is under threat too, perhaps placed under pressure following Katsuura’s personal disintegration over having been prevented in his attempts to save the life of the small boy some years previously or just from the constant insecurities involved being the family of a policeman whose working schedule is necessarily unpredictable. Though originally becoming fed up with Saori’s lack of cooperation, Katsuura eventually develops a protective relationship with her perhaps because she reminds him of his own teenage daughter. Given that the police are to some degree her enemy as they are the ones that have taken away her brother and separated her from her parents, it’s not surprising that she doesn’t immediately warm to Katsuura but after being betrayed by someone she believed was a true ally, she finally understands that he is firmly on her side and trying to protect her from a very real series of threats.

The modern world is shown up for all of its voyeuristic obsession with the horrifying and the taboo. The family are swarmed by press but it’s the internet that becomes the major aggressor as it publishes not only the boy’s real name, but even his parents’ address and the addresses of other people involved with the case. Self proclaimed social justice crusaders react like parasites glued to bulletin boards trading information on notorious crimes for a kind of internet fame, not caring about the facts of the case or that there are real people involved here who are already grieving. Taking the “I blame the parents” mentality to its extreme, even more distant members of the killer’s family are expected to trot out an apology for the cameras even though it’s really nothing to do with them and isn’t going to do anyone any good anyway.

Kimizuka shoots the first part of the action with a breathless intensity, mimicking hand held, on the ground news reporting to convey just how frightening and disorientating this must be for anyone unlucky enough to be caught up in a media storm. The use of choral music and occasional melodramatic touches near the end perhaps undermine the film’s emotional power which never quite coalesces in the way it seems to want to. However, Nobody to Watch Over Me is a fascinating and rich exploration of the public’s obsession with true crime stories coupled with an extreme tendency towards victim blaming and the need to hold to account those close to the perpetrator of a crime even if they had little to do with it themselves. Frightening yet hopeful in equal measure, Nobody to Watch Over Me offers scant comfort but does at least begin to ask the question.


The region 3 Hong Kong DVD release of Nobody to Watch Over Me includes English subtitles.

English subtitled teaser trailer: