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)

The Killing Game (殺人遊戯, Toru Murakawa, 1978)

the killing gameFollowing the success of The Most Dangerous Game, the second in what was to become a trilogy arrived within the year and once again stars Matsuda as the ice cold hitman Narumi. Sunnier in outlook, The Killing Game (殺人遊戯, Satsujin Jiken) unfolds along the same pattern as the first instalment as Narumi is dragged out of the shadows to intercede in a gang war only to find himself surplus to requirements.

Narumi (Yusaku Matsuda) has been retired from the killing game for the last five years and now lives a life of poverty and dissipation. Gone are his swanky apartment and stylish suits, now he lives in a bare hovel which is covered in dust and cobwebs, and he dresses like a farm boy in a white vest and jeans with a straw hat hanging on his back. He’s trying to lie low, but gets pulled into the kind of hostess bar he can’t really afford where he meets the first of two familiar faces which threaten to send him back into the middle of chaos. Akiko (Kaori Takeda), now a hostess at Bar Tako, is the daughter of the chairman Narumi bumped off in his last job before retiring but far from bearing a grudge against him, Akiko is grateful to have been set free. The second familiar face belongs to the same chairman’s former secretary/mistress, Misako (Yutaka Nakajima), who is now a mama-san at a bar popular with the local goons. All those years ago Narumi let Misako go in a moment of weakness and now regrets it but attempting to “reconnect” is going to land him right back in the thick of things.

Murakawa begins with a prologue which takes place in the noirish urban darkness of The Most Dangerous Game, but shoots in dreamy soft focus to emphasise that this is all memory before jumping forward five years. Exactly why Narumi has decided to give up a career in assassination is not revealed, nor is what he’s been doing the last five years, but he has apparently got himself an annoying sidekick who, in contrast to Narumi’s intense reserve, does not shut up. The first half of the movie is Narumi and his buddy trying to get by as outlaws including one humorous skit where they get themselves a van with a nudie pinup on the front plus a loudspeaker to humiliate debtors into paying up.

Things take a darker turn when Narumi runs into Misako – a chance meeting that seems almost like fate. Gradually the old Narumi begins to reappear. Deciding to pay Misako a visit he runs into her new man, gang boss Katsuda (Kei Sato), who figures out who he is and wants him to bump off another old gang boss. Narumi needs to get back in shape which he does via the tried and tested method of a training montage, lifting weights and running through the town with his trademark perm returning to its stylish buoyancy. This time around Narumi has buddy to help out, even if he only ends up being a liability, but the same strange dichotomy occurs – he may be an ace hitman, but Narumi is a mess without a gun in his hand.

Perhaps weathered by his experiences, Narumi is also much less cocky and much more unwilling to take a chance on trust. Once again he is betrayed by clients who’d rather not pay up and forced to play a “dangerous game” to bring the whole saga to a close in such a way as to keep both his life and the money. Rather than the surprising and largely inexplicable devotion of Dangerous’ Kyoko, Narumi finds himself torn between two women – the youthful Akiko who is grateful to Narumi for releasing her from an overbearing father, and the jaded Misako whose feelings for Narumi are complex, mingling fear, gratitude, attraction, and resentment into an irresistible storm of ambivalence. Again Narumi’s cool, animalistic aggression seems to be the key to his mysterious sex appeal but this time around there are no flickers of response as there were for the devoted Kyoko, these “relationships” are opportunistic and transactional.

Ironically titled, The Killing Game makes plain that Narumi will never be able to escape his chosen profession even if he wanted to. Without a gun in his hand Narumi is a pathetic wastrel, playing around at tuppenny schemes with his rather dim but talkative friend, and trying to play the big shot by buying out a hostess bar he is entirely unable to afford despite his recent windfall. The setting may be brighter, but Narumi’s word is still a nihilistic one in which he’s conditioned to expect betrayal and the only remaining vestiges of his humanity are his strange friendship with his bumbling sidekick and his ongoing fecklessness at coping with everyday life. Matsuda is as cool as ever in his effortless ability to cope with any given situation and kill with ruthless efficiency, but as Narumi edges ever closer to machine it is clear there is only one way to beat The Killing Game.


Original trailer (no subtitles)