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 House of Hanging (病院坂の首縊りの家, Kon Ichikawa, 1979)

Unlike many directors of his generation who either shifted into television or saw their careers stall, Kon Ichikawa was able to continue working throughout the difficult 70s and 80s precisely because he was less averse to taking on commercial projects such as 1976’s The Inugami Family, an ensemble mystery adapted from the bestselling book by Seishi Yokomizo and starring his famed detective Kosuke Kindaichi. The film proved an unexpected hit, an early success for Haruki Kadokawa’s new multimedia marketing model which would allow him to dominate cinema screens throughout the bubble era, and spawned a series of Kindaichi adaptations produced for Toho boasting a host of A-list stars. By 1979, however, the age of the prestige country house mystery was perhaps coming to a close and The House of Hanging (病院坂の首縊りの家, Byoinzaka no Kubikukuri no Ie) would be the last in the cycle of movies starring Koji Ishizaka who would eventually return to the role in Ichikawa’s 2006 remake of the original Inugami Family. 

Set quite specifically in 1951 (Showa 26), House of Hanging is among the more complex of Kindaichi’s cases and rests not on war trauma, which is only a background presence in the present venality of the post-war society, but on the decline of a once noble house ruined, as we find out, through the legacy of sexual immorality and abuse. For the moment, however, Kindaichi gets roped into the mystery after visiting an author friend (played by Seishi Yokomizo himself in a cameo) who recommends a photo studio he could visit in order to get a picture taken for his passport as he plans to travel to America. The photographer, Naokichi (Koji Shimizu), takes on an odd job from a strange young woman who asks them to take wedding photos of her sister but abruptly leaves explaining she’ll send a car later to bring them to an undisclosed location. That turns out to be the bombed-out former home of the Hogen family who own the local hospital. Escorted by a creepy young man, Naokichi finds himself in front of a traditional gold screen backdrop but feels uncomfortable because the bride does not seem to be very present and he worries that perhaps she’s been drugged and something untoward may have been going on. He shows the photo to Kindaichi for advice and is later called back to the same location to discover the severed head of the groom hanging from a ceiling light.  

In slightly comedic fashion, the circumstances of the case are so confusing that they have even Kindaichi admitting that he doesn’t quite follow while his temporary sidekick, photographer’s apprentice Mokutaro (Masao Kusakari), proudly holds up a chart he’s made to help keep track. Though the why is in this case more important than it might usually be, it boils down to the same old problem of buried secrets and past shame. We learn that the Hogen family is descended from a line of prominent doctors, though the family tree is complicated because it appears many of the sons of previous generations had illegitimate children, some of whom were later adopted or married to other adopted children in a quasi-incestuous union. With no one quite sure whose children are whose, incest appears to be the original sin which condemns the family, though as we later realise it’s another kind of abuse which sets the present events in motion.

The murdered man, Toshio (Teruhiko Aoi), was apparently part of travelling jazz band earning their living playing on American bases (the photographer also has a sideline in blackmarket army surplus). Aside from the original sin that connects the murders with melancholy fatalism, the additional victims damn themselves through their amoral greed, foolishly engaging in blackmail in the hope of improving their circumstances. Nevertheless, the sin remains the same, the theory being that Toshio was murdered by missing sister Koyuki who killed him in order to escape his inappropriate romantic obsession with her. The additional complication is that Koyuki looks near identical to Yukari (Junko Sakurada), daughter of the Hogen family, connecting the crime with the traumatic events of some years’ previously which led to the cottage becoming known as the “house of hanging” when the body of a young woman was found there having taken her own life. 

As in many of the other Kindaichi mysteries, the detective has only sympathy for those caught up in this complicated murder plot, many of whom are also victims acting simply to protect themselves ironically enough from the past trauma that has in a sense led to this sorry turn of events. Justice, in the end, takes care of itself though Kindaichi will also do his bit to protect those in need acting from a place of moral compassion rather than judicial censure. This final instalment in the Kindaichi cycle has slightly lower production values and a much less starry ensemble but sees Ichikawa adding a few idiosyncratic touches such as his fast, multi-angle cuts to a single person’s speech and a brief theatrical reconstruction sequence, while making time for the return of bumbling inspector Todoroki (Takeshi Kato) and the ironic comedy the series is known for. “Old things pass, that’s when new things are born” Yokomizo sagely advises in his cameo, Kindaichi apparently taking his leave from a corrupted post-war Japan for the bright lights of San Francisco, perhaps never to return. 


Original trailers (no subtitles)

The Devil’s Ballad (悪魔の手毬唄, Kon Ichikawa, 1977)

Devil's Ballad posterA year after his box office smash The Inugami Family, Kon Ichikawa returns to the world of eccentric detective Kosuke Kindaichi with The Devil’s Ballad (悪魔の手毬唄, Akuma no Temari Uta). Like many a Kindaichi mystery, Devil’s Ballad finds him called upon to delve back into the past to satisfy an ageing detective’s anxiety about an old case, only to be faced with a series of new ones as a consequence. This time, however, the mystery leans less on buried secrets than deeply held grudges, betrayals, and lingering feudal feuds as the post-war society tries and fails to free itself from ancient oppressions.

The film opens with a tryst between two adolescent lovers in the ominously named “Devil’s Skull Village” in 1950. Yasu (Yoko Takahashi), the girl, is at pains to let her boyfriend, Kanao (Koji Kita), know that she is keen to take the relationship to the next level but he is old fashioned and wants to wait until their union is formalised. The pair are interrupted by some of their friends who are in the middle of planning a celebration for a visit from a girl who moved to the city, Chie (Akiko Nishina). Meanwhile, Kindaichi (Koji Ishizaka) has arrived at the inn owned by Kanao’s mother Rika (Keiko Kishi) on invitation from a retired policeman, Isokawa (Tomisaburo Wakayama), who wants Kindaichi to look into the murder of Rika’s husband twenty years ago. Isokawa, then a young rookie, is convinced that Rika’s husband was not the victim but the murderer and the corpse actually belonged to another man entirely – Onda, a drifter who defrauded half the village with a wreath making scam.

Rika and her children – 20-year-old Kanao and his younger sister Satoko (Eiko Nagashima) who has prominent facial birthmarks and rarely leaves the house, came to the village with her husband and are therefore slightly divorced from the longstanding social rivalries. The village has two noble families – the Yuras and the Nires. Feeling the need to modernise, the Nires bet everything on vineyards and it paid off. The Yuras, by contrast, were defrauded by Onda’s wreath scam and lost their fortune and social standing. Yasu, Kanao’s girlfriend, is a daughter of the Yuras, but the Nire’s have been petitioning Rika for quite some time to have her son marry their daughter, Fumiko (Yukiko Nagano), who also has a crush on him (though this is largely irrelevant to her father’s dynastic ambitions). When the younger generation start getting bumped off in ways eerily similar to a local folk song, Kindaichi and Isokawa are on the case, wondering if these new murders have anything to do with their old one.

Despite its 1950 setting, Devil’s Ballad is unusual in resolutely making an irrelevance of the war which only receives a brief mention as an explanation for why some of the case files have been destroyed and for why marriage is such a hot button issue given the lack of men and abundance of women. Nevertheless, the crimes span a turbulent 20 years of Japanese history with the original murder taking place in the early ‘30s during a period of economic instability following the Manchurian Incident. In the socially conservative pre-war era, it seems Onda also got around and may have fathered several illegitimate children with women in the village, some of them noble, some not. These buried secrets seem primed to bubble to the surface now that the children are coming of age and marriage again becomes an issue as worried parents try to think of acceptable ways to block potentially “inappropriate” matches without sending their children off into ruinous elopements or tipping off the wrong people that their kids may not be their kids.

The crimes themselves, old fashioned as they are, are partly reactions to a changing society. We discover that the reason Rika and her husband were forced to come back to the village was that their showbiz careers were stalling – she was a vaudeville performer specialising in shamisen, and he a “benshi” (narrator of silent films) who became convinced his job was obsolete after witnessing a subtitled print of Morocco. Likewise, the two rival families cannot let go of their petty provincial privileges, and as Kanao angrily snaps back at his mother, Japan is now a democratic country and he is free to choose his own wife at a time of his own choosing with or without parental blessing. This remote village is perhaps isolated from the privations of the post-war world but it’s also stuck in the past, hung up on past transgressions and unable to move forward into the new era. However, the primary motivations for murder are as old as time – guilt, humiliation, and self preservation.

Ichikawa keeps things simple but splices in a few strange, avant-garde sequences of kokeshi dolls menacingly bouncing balls coupled with shifts to black and white, fast-paced reaction shots, and stuttering still frame sequences all while Kindaichi showers innocent passersby with his famous dandruff, the idiot police officer continues to offer ridiculous theories while his sergeant dutifully follows him around, and the local bobby perfects a line in hilarious pratfalls. Overlong at two and a half hours and falling prey to the curse of the prestige crime drama in spoiling its mystery through casting, the Devil’s Ballad may not be the best of the Kindaichi mysteries but offers enough of a satisfying twist to prove worthy of the Kindaichi name.


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)