Supermarket Woman (スーパーの女, Juzo Itami, 1996)

By 1996 Japan had entered an extended period of economic stagnation which signalled the end of post-war aspiration but for many at least the false promises of the Bubble era proved hard to dispel. In what would be his penultimate film, Supermarket Woman (スーパーの女, Supa no Onna), Juzo Itami turns his attentions to the insular world of the nation’s family-held, independent supermarkets to ask a few questions about integrity in business which cut straight to the heart of what kind of society post-Bubble Japan intended to be given yet another opportunity to make itself anew. 

As the opening text crawl explains, this is a story not about giant supermarket chains but your friendly indie local. “Honest Mart” is a family-owned, mid-range supermarket in a declining industrial area nominally run by absentee CEO Goro (Masahiko Tsugawa) who was bequeathed the place by his father but is a melancholy drunkard delegating responsibility to his manager. The store has a huge problem in that a rival has recently re-opened under the new name “Discount Demon” and seems primed to steal all their business. On a stakeout of the new place, Goro runs into a childhood friend, Hanako (Nobuko Miyamoto), who is now a widow returning to the area. With her lifelong experience as a veteran housewife, Hanako knows a few things about supermarkets and she’s not very impressed with Discount Demon, doing a few quick calculations to realise the supposed discounts aren’t as enticing as they seem while common gimmicks like the all pervasive red glow that makes their meat look fresher than it really is only irritate her. Goro asks her for a “professional” opinion on Honest Mart without telling her who he is, only to discover she’s even less impressed with them, certain that his place is on the way out thanks to its dated decor, uninviting atmosphere, and low quality produce. 

The irony is Honest Mart is not much better than Discount Demon, both stores are subject to the same industry standards in which a certain degree of obfuscation is permissible. “In business honesty doesn’t pay” Hanako is told by the onsite butcher after she questions his tendency to mix meats to pass them off as more expensive cuts, while she later discovers that the store engages in the practice of repackaging unsold meat and fish with new expiration dates and is not very particular about its suppliers when it comes to buying in ready-made products. Brought on board to save the store, Hanako breezes in with a new mission to win the hearts and minds of her customers, and she can’t do that if she can’t have confidence in her stock. In any case, her the customer is always right policy quickly brings her into conflict with the store manager, an older more conservative man who actively resists innovation and resents having his authority undercut by an interloping woman. 

Meanwhile, we can also see that customer attitudes have changed. There’s a problem with availability of trolleys because, perhaps unusually for Japan, customers are just abandoning them willy-nilly in the carpark instead of retuning them to the trolley point like responsible shoppers. One man is even for some reason intent on stealing a large number of shopping baskets, caught by Hanako loading them into his car. Everybody wants cheap, which is understandable especially given the economic situation, and they might even be a little underhanded when it comes to getting it, but they also expect a reasonable level of quality and to be able to trust that the food they’re buying is safe to feed their families. Hanako is most alarmed that the ladies who work in the kitchen area, who are obviously wives and mothers themselves, do not shop at Honest Mart because they know what goes on at the store and they don’t trust it. 

“A housewife knows” Hanako is fond is saying. Her revolution is in essence a vindication of “the housewife”, perhaps the most maligned and dismissed figure of the mid-90s society, putting to good use all of her veteran experience both of running a home and of working a series of part-time jobs including those in supermarkets which she claims to love. Approaching the problem from the point of view of a consumer, she attempts to help Goro achieve his dream of making Honest Mart number one in Japan not through making it the most financially successful but the most loved by listening to women like her in the form of a focus group of local aunties some of whom had previously been serial complainers. 

Then again, some of her decisions are in a sense contradictory as she attempts to streamline the business along classically capitalistic lines in suggesting that the store doesn’t really need its overqualified butcher and fishmonger because the part-timers could be trained to do a “good enough” job. “Good enough” is in a sense her business philosophy, only not in the sense that somewhere like Discount Demon which falsely advertises regular steak as discount Wagyu means it, rather that her customers are after an everyday level of produce and so it’s not surprising that premium meats don’t sell. She wants to get rid of the butcher, who turns out to be on the fiddle, and the melancholy fishmonger disappointed no one wants his top quality seafood, because their “artistic temperament” is disruptive to the flow of the store and their presence is perhaps emblematic of the bloated, pretentious management style which is holding it back. 

Positioning the “housewife’s choice” as the ultimate seal of approval, Supermarket Woman advocates for a return to wholesome, small-town values, prioritising a sense of integrity as Honest Mart projects itself as a corporate force their customers can trust, perhaps anticipating a trend in dedicating itself to providing good quality fresh produce at fair prices in direct opposition to Discount Demon and its underhanded trickery. “Honest Mart keeps its word” Goro assures, pledging to honour a mistaken ad which promised eggs at prices so good it caused minor riot. In the end, it’s all about trust and integrity. If you don’t have that, you don’t have anything and the housewives of post-Bubble Japan will it seems vote with their feet. 


Currently available to stream in the US via Criterion Channel.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Long Darkness (忍ぶ川, Kei Kumai, 1972)

Golden age Japanese cinema is generally resistant to the idea of romance as salvation. There may be a romantic happy ending, lovers uniting despite the mounting odds, but their happiness is often overshadowed by the anxieties of the world in which they live. Adapted from the novel by Tetsuo Miura, Kei Kumai’s post-war romance The Long Darkness (忍ぶ川, Shinobugawa) meanwhile insists that it’s love that will save you in the end as its dejected, insecure heroes find the courage to go on living precisely because of the strength and validation they discover in loving and being loved.

The hero, Tetsuro (Go Kato), feels himself to be cursed, overcome with a sense of shame and anxiety because of the dark shadow that hangs over his once prosperous family. His oldest sister committed suicide for love on his sixth birthday, while another sister then took her own life some time later out of guilt for having contributed to her death. His oldest brother whom he describes as sensitive and eccentric disappeared in grief, while the next oldest took a job at a Tokyo lumber yard and supported him as a student but later disgraced the family by running off with money he’d fraudulently accumulated in the name of opening his own company. Tetsuro is convinced that there is something genetically wrong with the family line and is intensely anxious that it will one day consume him too. 

That might be why he’s unexpectedly bashful for a man of 27 in courting the pretty waitress of a local bar, Shino (Komaki Kurihara), whom he first met while celebrating the graduation of some other students after making a belated return to university. Shino too is carrying her own burdens which lead her to feel unworthy of happiness in that she was raised in the red light district and her family, evacuated to rural Tochigi during the war, is now impoverished and living in a shrine. The proprietress at her restaurant has pressured her into an engagement with a prosperous car salesman whom she doesn’t like but feels unable to refuse on the grounds that he will take care of her sick father. The car salesman tries to rape her so she’ll have to marry him which, as her father points out, does not speak well for his character or the prospect of a happy marriage. Her father is clear, he wants his daughter to be happy and in this age a woman’s happiness does largely depend on the man she marries. He tells her to find a man she loves more than life itself and marry him without a moment’s thought. 

The forces which divide them aren’t so much to do with class, politics, money, or custom but with internalised shame and the deeply held belief that they are “bad” people who do not deserve to be happy. “Can I go on living?” Tetsuro’s only remaining sister tearfully asks him, burdened both by her traumatic family history and by a visual impairment that further convinces her she cannot expect to be a part of regular society and has no prospect of a happy future. He almost turns away after noticing her crying but realises that’s what his absent siblings might have done and resolves to behave differently, reforging his his familial bonds with love and compassion in place of the gloominess and futility that had long overshadowed his family home. Just as Shino’s father had anointed Tetsuro a “good person” he could entrust his daughter to, Tetsuro’s sister and mother affirm that Shino too is “good” and her presence brings light and laughter back into their lives after years of lonely suffering. 

“We’ve spent our whole lives worrying about appearances” Tetsuro declares, “it’s time we stop”. Affirming that her new in-laws are also “all good people”, Shino too admits that she realises the “uselessness” of her old life “never saying what I want or don’t want, going along with everything”, liberated by the transcendent power of love that allows her to overcome her fear and insecurity to claim her own agency, the jingling bells of a farmer’s horse cart echoing from below as if in celebration. Shooting in a classic 4:3 monochrome with occasional intertitles and voiceover, Kumai emphasises the literary quality of the tale spanning the rundown lumberyards of post-war Tokyo to the frozen north of Tetsuro’s frosty home but finally argues for the freedom and possibility to be found in the contemporary era by making an active choice for happiness rather than submitting oneself to a fated misery out of misguided obedience to austere and oppressive social codes. “Everyone’s jealous of you” an old woman cackles catching sight of the newly-wed couple on the train to their new life, and you can well understand why. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Woman in Witness Protection (マルタイの女, Juzo Itami, 1997)

woman in witness protection posterJuzo Itami’s fearless taste for sending up the contradictions and hypocrisies of his home nation knew no bounds, eventually bringing him into conflict with the very forces he assumed so secure it was safe to mock – his 1992 film Minbo led to brutal attack by a gang of yakuza unhappy with how his film portrayed the world of organised crime. Woman in Witness Protection (マルタイの女, Marutai no Onna), continuing the “Woman” theme from previous hits A Taxing Woman and the more recent Supermarket Woman, would be Itami’s final feature as he died in mysterious circumstances not long after its completion and like Minbo it touched an open nerve. In 1997, crazy cult violence was perhaps no laughing matter nor as ridiculous as it might have seemed a few years earlier, yet Itami makes the actions of brainwashed conspirators the primary motivator of a self-centred actress’ gradual progress towards accepting the very thing his previous films might have satirised – her civic duty as a Japanese woman.

Itami breaks the film into a series of vignettes bookended by title cards beginning with the first which introduces us to our leading lady – Biwako Isono (Nobuko Miyamoto). Biwako is currently in rehearsals for an avant-garde play about giving birth (“a woman’s moment of glory”) during which she reduces her assistant to tears prompting her resignation, decrying Biwako’s self-centred bitchiness as she goes. Chastened, Biwako spends the evening doing vocal exercises outside her apartment which is how she comes to witness the botched murder of a lawyer by a crazed cultist (Kazuya Takahashi) during which she is almost murdered herself and only survives because the killer’s gun jams. As the only witness Biwako suddenly becomes important to the police which works well with her general need for attention but less so with her loathing for hassle. Seeing as Biwako is a famous actress, her involvement also precipitates increased press interest for the murder and accidentally threatens the ongoing police investigation not least because Biwako likes to play up for the camera and isn’t quite sure how best to deal with her divided responsibilities. With the killer still at large, the police decide to give Biwako protection in the form of two detectives – Chikamatsu (Yuji Murata), a cultured man who’s a big fan of Biwako’s stage career, and Tachibana (Masahiko Nishimura), a rather stiff gentleman who never watches films and rarely indulges in entertainment.

Bringing up cult violence in 1997 just two years after Japan’s only real terrorist incident perpetrated by a crazed cult, might be thought taboo but taboo was not something that Itami had ever run away from. Crazed cults had also popped up during A Taxing Woman’s Return though back then they mostly represented the hypocrisy of the new yakuza as a front for organised crime that thought nothing of bleeding vulnerable people dry while feeding them a lot of semi-religious claptrap to make them feel a part of something bigger while the bubble economy continued its puffed up attempts to make them feel inadequate. This time around our cultists are less well drawn but clearly a collection of unlucky people duped into believing the strange philosophies of the “Sheep of Truth” which teach that the world can only be saved by its followers dividing the world into white sheep and black sheep. Like the policeman and later Biwako, the killer believes he is only doing “that which must be done” in the best interests of the world. He is unaware of the cult’s shadiness and shocked when their lawyer threatens his family in an effort to convince him not to talk once the police have managed to break his programming, ironically through exactly the same methods – manipulating his feelings towards his wife and son.

The cult is however merely background to Biwako’s ongoing character drama. Despite experiencing emotional trauma from witnessing a murder and then being threatened herself, Biwako enjoys being the centre of the attention with the police as well as the warm glow she feels in being able to help them with their enquiries, but balks at the additional hassle of having to be involved in the trial (even if she would be given quite a sizeable platform as a witness in a high profile court case). She resents having the two policemen follow her around – especially as she has quite a busy schedule which includes an affair with her married manager. Nevertheless she gradually allows them into her life with Tachibana even making his stage debut as spear carrier in a production of Anthony and Cleopatra. Tachibana’s steadfast defence of her person even at the risk of his own life begins to teach Biwako a few things about civic responsibility and the importance of duty, even if her final moment of realisation is another of her staged set pieces in which she conjures a poignant monologue from the accidentally profound mutterings of Tachibana, a little of Cleopatra, and the earlier line from the maternity play repurposed as she affirms that testifying against the cultists will be her “moment of glory”.

Rather than end on Biwako’s sudden moment of enlightenment, Itami cuts to an ironic epilogue in which a police detective watching the movie we have just seen complains about its authenticity while emphasising that no one in protective custody has ever been attacked. A little tongue in cheek humour from Itami that is followed by the more usual disclaimer before the credits resume, but perhaps anticipating another dose of controversy from both law enforcement and cult devotees. Lighter in tone and noticeably less surreal than some of Itami’s earlier work, Woman in Witness Protection is the story of a vacuous actress learning the purpose of her stage as her particular brand of artifice meets that of the less innocently self-centred cultists head on and eventually becomes the best weapon against it.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

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)

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)

Sing a Song of Sex (日本春歌考, Nagisa Oshima, 1967)

20120910022716257Aimless youth wastes its potency on repressed desires in Oshima’s avant-garde treatise on power dynamics and political fallacies. Sing a Song of Sex (日本春歌考, Nihon shunka-ko), less the bawdy romp the title promises than an irony tinged journey through music as a weapon against oppression, is the first of three films Oshima would make in the late ‘60s examining Japan’s complicated relationship with Korea. Its “heroes” however are about as depoliticised as it’s possible to get – they interrupt protests they don’t understand and obsess over a single pretty girl they fantasise about raping in an elaborate classroom based piece of erotic wish-fulfilment. All that matters to them is their craving for physical satisfaction which knows no morality or greater purpose save satiation, conquest, and implied humiliation.

Japan, spring, 1967. Four boys sit their university entrance exams with (externally at least) less seriousness than might be expected. Huddling together away from the snow they smoke cigarettes and gossip about miss 469 whose name they don’t know but caught their eye in the exam hall. The boys, along with three girls, are nominally under the care of their teacher, Mr. Otake (Juzo Itami), who takes them to a pub to “celebrate” before getting extremely drunk and kicking off on an inappropriate lecture about bawdy folk songs and their lasting legacy as the voice of the poor and the oppressed who have no other way of expressing their needs and desires. Lamenting that the young people of today lack the capacity for real feeling, Otake offers to put the kids up in a local inn, perhaps hoping to provoke some kind of awakening among his teenage charges but the loss of innocence he inspires in them is of a very different nature. Still extremely drunk, Otake falls asleep next to a faulty gas heater and dies of carbon monoxide poisoning.

One of the boys, Nakamura (Ichiro Araki), went to see Otake during the night and saw him keeled over in a room that smelt of gas but did nothing. The girls, wailing and distraught, attempt to make their way home while the boys joke about having murdered their teacher and continue to exchange increasingly lewd and disturbing banter about their female classmates including collective rape fantasies (but only of the pretty one). The “other” girl that they collectively decide they don’t fancy, Kaneda (Hideko Yoshida), is disturbed enough by the boys’ murderous joke that she comes back to make sure it isn’t true, accidentally finding out about their dreamscape rape of no. 469 and pushing Nakamura towards paying a visit to Otake’s girlfriend, whom the boys have also been fantasising about, to apologise to her about his possible contribution to Otake’s death.

While Kaneda and the other three set off to track down 469, Nakamura splits off for Otake’s wake where he finds himself alone among a collection of former student protestors with differing views about Otake’s legacy and relation to the cause. The protestors break into a traditional Japanese leftwing anthem, but Nakamura isn’t having any of it. That’s not the Otake he knew. He resists their politicisation of his mentor’s funeral by loudly singing the bawdy drinking song Otake taught them at the pub. The song becomes something like an anthem for Nakamura and his friends who sing it at every conceivable opportunity, delighting in its inappropriateness and ironic similarity to the acts they frequently discuss but seemingly do not directly engage in. Like the peasants Otake idolised, Nakamura takes up the song as a weapon against his own oppression and the unwilling repression of his physical desires.

The battle becomes one of audience and agency. Nakamura sings his song over the hymn of protest being offered by the defeated left while Kaneda later attempts to counter with a female tale of exploitation, snatching a microphone away from some Americanised hippies singing Woody Guthrie and protesting the Vietnam war while dancing round the stars and stripes. Kaneda eventually gets her moment in the spotlight but she pays a heavy and ironic price for it, partly at the hands of miss 469 who re-enters the boys’ rape fantasy after it is directly revealed to her and she dares them to realise their baser desires. Suddenly back in an empty classroom presided over by Otake’s girlfriend, Miss Tanigawa (Akiko Koyama), and the silent spectre of Kaneda now dressed in a sparkly white hanbok, the boys get an intense lesson in Japanese history and more specifically the origins of the Japanese state in the royal courts of Korea.

The songs of the youthful protestors, some Japanese some co-opted from abroad, have lost their meaning and their fire. Their protest is affected and purposeless, as solipsistic as the boys’ destructive desires. On the one hand, youth embraces the pop culture of rebellion – joining the flower power revolution and adopting the Americanised protests against a foreign war and (perhaps tangentially) their nation’s complicity in it, while age fixes its sights on a recently revived imperial holiday and a rejection of the fascist past (though not a rejection of the imperial past or a recognition of its lingering legacy). Painted in tones of red and white, the rising sun occasionally replaced with the blackened flag of protest, Sing a Song of Sex is a paradoxically nihilistic condemnation of post-war youth who allow their oppression to push them into senseless acts of violence rather towards the noble causes of revolution and social change which might finally set them free.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Tampopo (タンポポ, Juzo Itami, 1985)

tampopo posterSome people love ramen so much that the idea of a “bad” bowl hardly occurs to them – all ramen is, at least, ramen. Then again, some love ramen so much that it’s almost a religious experience, bound up with ritual and the need to do things properly. A brief vignette at the beginning of Juzo Itami’s Tampopo (タンポポ) introduces us to one such ramen expert who runs through the proper way of enjoying a bowl of noodle soup which involves a lot of talking to your food whilst caressing it gently before finally consuming it with the utmost respect. Ramen is serious business, but for widowed mother Tampopo it’s a case of the watched pot never boiling. Thanks to a cowboy loner and a few other waifs and strays who eventually become friends and allies, Tampopo is about to get some schooling in the quest for the perfect noodle whilst the world goes on around her. Food becomes something used and misused but remains, ultimately, the source of all life and the thing which unites all living things.

Goro (Tsutomu Yamazaki), a middle-aged man with a fancy hat, and his truck mate Gun (Ken Watanabe), younger, tight white jeans and colourful neckerchief, have become ramen experts thanks to their road bound life. Taking a break during a heavy rain storm, the pair run into a little boy being beaten up by three others and, after scaring the assailants off, escort him into the ramen restaurant where he lives with his widowed mother, Tampopo. Goro and Gun get the stranger in town treatment, but decide to sit down and order a bowl each anyway before a getting into a fight with another diner. Despite her skills as a home cook, Tampopo’s ramen is distinctly second-rate which explains why her business isn’t taking off. Goro and Gun spend some time helping her figure out where she’s going wrong leading Tampopo to beg them to stay, or at least come back when they have time, and teach her what it takes to make the perfect bowl.

Essentially a hybrid between a western and a sports movie, Tampopo has its fair share of training montages as the titular heroine tries to improve her stamina by taking intensive runs, carrying heavy pots of water from one place to another, and constantly trying get her cooking time down to three minutes. The lone woman on the “ranch” that is her restaurant, Tampopo may not be contending with boisterous cattle, threatening neighbours, or disapproving townsfolk but she is being mentored to become her own master as much as anything else. Goro is her strong and silent teacher, but, like Shane, he’s a man not meant to be tied down and is essentially teaching her how to survive alone however painful it may be for him to leave.

This is a fairly radical idea in and of itself. Tampopo’s goal is not another marriage and a man to mind the ranch, but the creation of a successful business which will support both herself and her son built on genuine skills and a lot of hard work. Goro, a ramen aficionado, takes charge but ropes in a few other “experts” to help him including a ramen loving former doctor now living on the streets, the private chef of a wealthy man the gang saved when he almost choked on mochi, and the guy Goro fought with in the beginning who also happens to be a childhood friend of Tampopo nursing a lifelong crush on her.  From each of these men, as well as friendly (or not) rivalry with local competitors, Tampopo learns everything she needs to succeed including the confidence in herself to carry it through.

Whilst Tampopo and co. are busy figuring out the zen of ramen, Itami wanders off for a series of strange vignettes examining more general attitudes to food beginning with Koji Yakusho’s white suited, cinephile gangster who vows bloody murder on anyone daring to eat noisy snacks during the movie. The gangster and his moll eventually retreat to a hotel room where they find new and actually quite strange ways of using food to enhance their pleasure but their story leads us to others in the hotel from a young man stuck in a business meeting who shows up his less cultured colleagues with his culinary knowledge and either doesn’t know or doesn’t care that you’re supposed to order the same as your boss lest you be implying his choice of dish is “wrong”, to a group of young women taking a class in the proper way to eat spaghetti. The instructor (played by veteran actress Mariko Okada), goes to great lengths to explain that it’s considered very uncouth to make any kind of noise whilst eating pasta, only for a westerner of undisclosed nationality to loudly slurp his noodles half way across the room.

While these two episodes showcase the ridiculousness of food etiquette, others take a more surreal direction such as in the strange episode of an old lady who likes to sneak into the local supermarket and torment the clerk by squeezing the fruits, cheeses, and pastries while he chases her round the shop. Here appetites are to be indulged, even if they’re strange, rather than suppressed in favour of someone else’s idea of the proper way to behave. Yet that doesn’t mean that food is something throwaway, to be consumed without thought – in fact, it’s the opposite as Goro’s tutelage of Tampopo shows. Skills alone are not enough, achieving the zen of cookery is a matter of touch and sensitivity, of shared efforts and interconnected strife. Like a dandelion blowing in the wind, Tampopo’s ramen shop gives as it receives, generously and without pretension.


Available now in the UK/US courtesy of Criterion Collection!

Original 1985 trailer (English subtitles)

Welcome Back, Mr. McDonald (ラヂオの時間, Koki Mitani, 1997)

Welcome Back Mr. McDonaldKoki Mitani is one of the most bankable mainstream directors in Japan though his work has rarely travelled outside of his native land. Beginning his career in the theatre, Mitani is the master of modern comedic farce and has the rare talent of being able to ground often absurd scenarios in the  humour that is very much a part of everyday life. Welcome Back, Mr. McDonald (ラヂオの時間, Radio no Jikan) is Mitani’s debut feature in the director’s chair though he previously adapted his own stage plays as screenplays for other directors. This time he sets his scene in the high pressure environment of the production booth of a live radio drama broadcast as the debut script of a shy competition winner is about to get torn to bits by egotistical actors and marred by technical hitches.

Mild-mannered housewife Miyako Suzuki (Kyoka Suzuki ) has won a competition to get her radio play, titled “Woman of Destiny”, on air. A romantic tale of a bored housewife unexpectedly finding love at the pachinko parlour, her story may have a thin layer of autobiography or at least wish fulfilment but at any rate she is very close to her material. Unfortunately, “difficult” actress Nokko (Keiko Toda) has been foisted on the production crew due to entertainment world politics and objects to her character’s name because she once dated a married guy whose wife shared it. Eventually Nokko demands to be called something more interesting like “Mary Jane” (the irony!). At this point, all the other actors start wanting changes too and before you know it Miyako’s gentle tale of forbidden romance has become a gangster crime thriller set in Chicago filled with mobsters and tommy guns!

The writer is god, in one sense. Only, god has been locked out of the room leading to total chaos. Each small change necessitates a series of other changes and seeing as this is all being done live and on the hoof, no one is quite thinking through the implications of each decision. When the actor playing “Mary Jane’s” love interest suddenly goes off book and declares his name is “Donald McDonald” (inspired by left over fast food cartons) and he’s a pilot not a fisherman as agreed (though why would a fisherman be in the mountains of Chicago anyway?), everything goes completely haywire eventually ending up in an outer space based love crisis!

If all this wasn’t enough, someone has also wandered off with the key to the sound effects machine which would be fine if they hadn’t added all the gangster shenanigans in the first place. The show’s producer, Ushijima (Masahiko Nishimura), explains to Miyako at one point that radio has a very important advantage over visual media as you really can do anything even on no budget because your biggest resource is your audience’s imaginations. He has a very real point, though the completely bizarre saga of “sexy female lawyer” Mary Jane, her “Nasa Pilot” (a quick save after “Donald’s” plane is reported missing and someone remembers this slot is sponsored by an airline) true love, and her husband who for some reason is a random German named Heinrich is going to require a significant suspension of disbelief from the confused listeners at home.

As a theatre practitioner Mitani is an expert at creating ensemble comedy and even though he is playing with a large cast and a fast moving environment each of his characters is extremely well drawn. We see the shy writer beginning to lose heart after her story is shredded by the unforgiving production environment whilst also trying to persuade her husband who has turned up unexpectedly to go home before he figures out her script is suspiciously close to their real lives. We also see the production team frantically trying to fulfil their obligations so they can avoid getting into trouble with the higher ups and finally go home for the day. Ushijima is caught in the middle, surrounded by nonchalant yes men and lazy bosses, he’s desperately trying to compromise to keep everything on schedule whereas the jaded director just wants to do his job as written. However, it’s the director who is ultimately most moved by Miyako’s script and eventually decides it does deserve the happy ending that Miyako has been longing for.

By the end of the recording, something of the old magic has returned to the otherwise work-a-day world of the radio studio. They’ve even brought back old fashioned foley effects and retrieved the old school sound guy who’d been relegated to playing his gameboy in the security booth because no one needed his expertise anymore. Nothing went as planned, but everything worked out in the end and it’s happy endings all round both in the real world and in the completely surreal radio play. They might even do a sequel!

Mitani breaks the action every now and then to take us outside of the studio environment and into the cab of a petrol tanker being driven by a strangely dressed trucker (in a brief cameo from Ken Watanabe, no less!) who keeps trying to change the channel for more country influenced Enka but finds himself enthralled by the strange tale of the true love between Mary Jane and Donald mcDonald. We might not be quite as moved as he is, having been party to all the backstage goings on, but we have perhaps laughed more than cried through the almost screwball comedy and farcical set up of Mitani’s spot on depiction of the less than glamorous workings of the fast paced live production environment.


English subtitled trailer:

The Funeral (お葬式, Juzo Itami, 1984)

The FuneralThe Funeral is the debut film from actor and director Juzo Itami, probably best known for his crazy food odyssey Tampopo. Like all of Itami’s films, The Funeral is, essentially, a social satire and though not as raucous as the later Tampopo it does a fine job of mixing a traditional comedy of manners with a poignant examination of end of life rituals. Full of naturalistic details, The Funeral is a surprisingly warm film that’s much more about laughter than tears.

Successful actress Chizuko suddenly gets a phonecall in the middle of a shoot to say that her father has died suddenly and unexpectedly. Her mother would appreciate it if they could hold the funeral her house and if Chizuko and her actor husband Wabisuke would take charge of the funeral arrangements. Wabisuke is extremely reluctant but eventually agrees letting himself in for a whole new world of complications as the couple find themselves negotiating on the price of coffins, organising food for a wake and trying to work out what the most appropriate “donation” for a priest is. That’s not to mention trying to accommodate the wishes of all the relatives who will also be descending on them for the duration of the funeral which will last three whole days….

Funerary customs are the sort of thing you just assume everybody knows to the point that it can be a little embarrassing if you find yourself in the situation of having to ask. Luckily there are trained professionals available to help organise the main structure of events but when it comes down to the small details – what you should say, where you should stand and for how long, who’s invited and who isn’t, things can get tricky. In one hilarious moment, Chizuko and Wabisuke find themselves watching a VHS tape entitled “The ABCs of Funerals” and taking notes furiously as if learning lines for a new play.

Suddenly everything is a complicated decision and everyone seems to have their own opinion on matters. Having successfully got hold of a coffin, the couple need to decide whether to take the body home first or transport it in the coffin as advised by their very helpful funeral director. The majority of the family are in favour of the comparatively simpler option of putting the body into the coffin now and leaving it that way but an older uncle seems quite distressed by this new fangled business and laments that they don’t do it like this back home.

Said older uncle and business tycoon continues to find fault with various things including the direction of North which he insists the deceased’s head should be facing causing him to stare at the coffin and walk around the house waving his arms trying to work out, literally, which way is up. However, he’s also responsible for one of the more shocking breaks with appropriate behaviour as he starts trying to stage direct the final goodbyes so he can get a good photo, at one point asking the grieving widow to just “hold it a second” and “maybe get a little closer to his face” while he snaps away trying to capture the moment. Mind you, he’s not the only one to throw the book of etiquette out of the window as most people would probably list inviting your mistress to the funeral of your wife’s father as one of the top ten things you should never do.

However, these moments of everyday lapses in morality are just one of the film’s charmingly naturalistic elements like the priest (played by veteran actor Chishu Ryu) arriving in a very expensive car and obsessing over a series of French tiles. From a collection of shoes in different sizes scattered outside the family home to the children’s morbid curiosity in checking out the furnace at the crematorium the film is shot through with the tiny details of everyday life that are likely to find recognition everywhere. In fact the brief period of time with the whole family assembled together before the funeral really begins could easily be any other springtime celebration rather than the solemn occasion that has brought them all together this time. Even the artsy black and white video shot by a friend of Wabesuki’s to document the event shows the family laughing together and the children playing happily even as they learn the proper way to light funerary incense.

Of course, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its share of sorrows too – the film is called The Funeral after all and the final funeral oration given by the grieving widow is likely to leave many viewers complaining of something in their eye (especially given the couple’s rather strained relationship in the early part of the film). However, as usual Itami successfully manages to avoid sticky sentimentality in favour of a warm, natural and most importantly funny exploration of family dynamics and social customs. Not as madcap or laugh out loud funny as some of Itami’s later work, The Funeral is nevertheless a wry and witty comedy that knows how to play a merry tune on your heartstrings.