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)

Case of the Disjointed Murder (不連続殺人事件, Chusei Sone, 1977)

Case of the disjointed murders posterJapanese cinema of the 1970s fell hard for the prestige murder mystery. Following the success of The Inugami Family, an early and unexpected hit thanks to Kadokawa’s “innovative” marketing strategy, multi-cast detective dramas dominated the box office for the rest of the decade. Meanwhile, ATG had been known for serious and high-minded avant-garde cinema throughout the 1960s but its brand of left-leaning, politically conscious, arthouse-fare was tantamount to box office poison in the increasingly consumerist post-Asama-Sanso world. ATG’s Kindaichi-centric Death at an Old Mansion, updated to the present day, pre-dated Ichikawa’s series for Toho by a whole year and perhaps signalled their resignation to shifting into the mainstream. By 1977, that transition was perhaps complete with former Nikkatsu Roman Porno director Chusei Sone’s adaptation of a classic serial penned by Ango Sakaguchi, an author of the “Buraiha“ school well known for chronicling post-war aimlessness.

Set in the summer of 1947, Case of the Disjointed Murder (不連続殺人事件, Furenzoku Satsujin Jiken, AKA Unrelated Murder Cases) is a classic country house mystery in which a series of high profile writers are invited to a mansion owned by a wealthy family, the Utagawas. Only, as it turns out, many of the letters of invitation are forgeries or have been doctored so that several unexpected guests have arrived including dissolute artist Doi (Yuya Uchida) whose presence is particularly awkward because he is the former husband of the host Kazuma’s (Tetsuro Sagawa) new wife Ayaka (Junko Natsu). Soon enough, one of the guests is murdered, and then another, and still more, seemingly for no real reason. Amateur detective Kose (Kazuya Kosaka), one of the “unexpected” guests, tries to piece the crime together to prevent its expansion but finds himself outflanked by a lack of material evidence.

Sakaguchi’s original tale ran as a newspaper serial which promised a cash prize for anyone clever enough to identify the murderer(s) before the truth was revealed as it eventually is in true country house mystery fashion with the detective explaining everything in a lengthy monologue while all the interested parties sit around a dinner table. The gamified nature of the serial is perhaps the reason for the large cast of characters comprising of Utagawa family members, the literary house guests, and staff all of whom become mixed up in the ongoing crime drama which Kose comes increasingly to believe is engineered rather than random as it might originally seem.

The “supposed” random chaos of the the “unconnected” murders is a key part of Sakaguchi’s interrogation of post-war anxiety. For a time it seems as if these mostly quite unpleasant people have taken the opportunity of being trapped within a claustrophobic environment to air out their own grievances with each other in an atmosphere already tainted with violence and resentment. Meanwhile, the moral corruption of the Utagawa household continues to come back to haunt them in the sexual transgressions of the late grandfather who apparently fathered several illegitimate children in addition to those from multiple marriages. The half-siblings bring additional strife into the Utagawa home in Kazuma’s incestuous desire for his half-sister Kayoko (Hitomi Fukuhara) who returns his affections and even hopes to marry her brother, while he has also transgressed by “buying” Ayaka from her venal first husband Doi.

As in most Japanese mysteries, however, the motives for murder turn out to be banal – simply monetary greed and seemingly nothing more even if backed up by a peculiar kind of romanticism. Such unbound desire for riches is perhaps another symptom of the precariousness of the post-war world in which individual survival is all in a chaotic environment where financial security is more or less impossible for those not already born into wealth. Kose begins to solve the crimes through the “psychological traces” the killer(s) leave behind, the various ways in which “scenes” are calculated and contrived but fail to entirely mask the truth which lies behind them.

Which is to say that the mechanics behind the killings ultimately become secondary to their psychological import in which Kose analyses superficial relationships to uncover the depths which underpin them and their implications for a conspiracy of crime. This persistent amorality in which human relationships and connections are subverted for personal gain is yet another example of post-war inhumanity in which the corruption of the war has destroyed the “innocence” of pre-modern Japan and provoked nothing more than a moral decline born of a confused anxiety and a generation struggling to adjust itself to a new reality.

Death at an Old Mansion aside, the ‘70s mystery boom had a peculiar obsession with post-war crime in the comparative comfort of the economic miracle. 30 years on, society was perhaps ready to ask more questions about an intensely traumatic moment in time but equally keen to ask what they might say about another anxious moment of social change only opposite in nature. No longer quite so burdened by post-war regret or confusion, some began to wonder if consumerism was as dangerous as poverty for the health of the national soul, but nevertheless seem content to bask in the essential cosiness of a country house mystery in which the detective will always return at the end to offer a full and frank explanation to a roomful of compromised suspects. If only real life were so easy to explain.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Inugami Family (犬神家の一族, Kon Ichikawa, 1976)

the inugami family 1976 posterUnlike many of his contemporaries, Kon Ichikawa was able to go on working through the turbulent ‘70s and ‘80s because he was willing to take on purely commercial projects. The phenomenal and hugely unexpected success of 1976’s The Inugami Family (犬神家の一族, Inugami-ke no Ichizoku) set him in good stead for the rest of the decade during which he followed up with another four movies starring Koji Ishizaka as the eccentric detective Kosuke Kindaichi as featured in the novels of Seishi Yokomizo each of which was a bonafide box office success partially thanks to the effect of Haruki Kadokawa’s intensive multimedia marketing strategy then still in its infancy. In fact, Ichikawa would return to the sordid world of the Inugamis for his final picture in which he dared to remake his “greatest hit” with a now much older Koji Ishizaka reprising his role exactly 30 years later. Ichikawa might have been making “commercial” movies, but he never lost his experimental spirit.

Old Sahei Inugami (Rentaro Mikuni) finally drops dead in 1947 after a lifetime of seemingly doing exactly as he pleased. As a 17-year-old orphan he was taken in by a kindly priest and thereafter founded one of the biggest pharmaceuticals companies in Japan which is to say he leaves behind him a vast estate and desirable name. Unfortunately, he also leaves a messy family situation. Sahei was never legally married, but fathered three daughters with three different women who each have a son. In his 50s, he also fathered a son with his maid who would be about the same age as the grandchildren if anyone knew where he was. Sahei’s will, which in dramatic fashion can only be read with everyone present, leaves everything to a young woman, Tamayo (Yoko Shimada), who isn’t even part of the family but was doted on all the same by the elderly patriarch. In order to inherit, Tamayo must consent to marry one of the three grandsons – Suketake (Takeo Chii), Suketomo (Hisashi Kawaguchi), or Sukekiyo (Teruhiko Aoi) with whom she seems to have shared a past attachment. The will stresses that she is free to choose though if she decides to marry someone else entirely, the fortune will be divided in five with one part each to the grandsons and the rest to the maid’s son. As one can imagine, the daughters are furious.

Kindaichi is called in by a clerk (Hajime Nishio) at the solicitor’s office who has seen the will and finds it all decidedly strange (plus he’s in love with Tamayo so it’s very bad news for him). The clerk gets murdered before he can spill the beans, but the solicitor himself, Furudate (Eitaro Ozawa), decides to enlist Kindaichi’s help in figuring all of this out before it claims any more lives. Unfortunately, claim more lives it will.

Greed, as ever, is at the root of all evil but like the other entries in the Kindaichi series the crimes are largely a result of the world which surrounds them. Old Sahei made his money in some dubious ways. Ingratiating himself with the rich and powerful, later becoming a militarist for what seems like opportunistic reasons, he got himself special dispensation to grow poppies for their medicinal properties. Which is to say, he got rich selling opium to the masses. Inugami pharmaceuticals profited hugely from suffering incurred in wars spanning the century – with Russia, with China, through the first world war and the second. There was Inugami, ready to fuel the fire by numbing the pain.

Yet it’s his own unresolved emotional suffering that seems to have sent him such a dark and amoral path. Later we discover that a strange and emotionally difficult set of circumstances involving a quasi-incestuous, bisexual love triangle seem to have left him craving something to numb his own pain but only succeeding in passing it on to those around him. Firstly through the women he kept around to satisfy his carnal desires and then sent away, keeping the children with him but in a loveless, austere home. The sisters – Matsuko (Mieko Takamine), Takeko (Miki Sanjo), and Umeko (Mitsuko Kusabue) share an uneasy sort of camaraderie but are quick to turn on each other when it becomes clear that only one of them will inherit the family fortune and that they are now each rivals for the hand of Tamayo.

Like their grandfather, the Inugami boys are not an especially good catch. Two of them eventually attempt to rape Tamayo in an attempt to force her into marriage through shame (despite the fact that one has already fathered a child with his cousin), while she also has her doubts that Sukekiyo, with whom she has always felt a connection, is really who he says he is. Having gone away to the war, Sukekiyo did not return home after being demobbed because of intense survivor’s guilt. He also sustained severe burns to his face which require him to wear a latex mask over his entire head making positive identification difficult seeing as his voice, which he rarely uses, is also changed.

Rather than submit himself to the necessarily pokerfaced approach common to prestige murder mysteries from across the globe, Ichikawa uses the saleability of the property as an excuse to go all out. His tone varies wildly, almost to the point of parody in his frequent cuts to Kindaichi causing another of his famous anxiety induced dandruff avalanches. The blood eventually flies as do severed heads while upended corpses do handstands in lakes. The story of the Inugami family is a strange one filled with moments of bizarre whimsy but somehow it all works. As in many a Japanese mystery, the past refuses to die and the guilty eventually realise how misguided their enterprise has been, but there is hope for those left behind if they can free themselves from the cycle of guilt and suffering on which the Inugami name was built.


Original trailer (no subtitles)