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)

Dark Water (仄暗い水の底から, Hideo Nakata, 2002)

dark-water

Review of Hideo Nakata’s Dark Water first published by UK Anime Network.


For good or ill, the J-horror boom came to dominate Japanese cinema at the turn of the century and if anyone can be said to have been instrumental in ushering it in, director Hideo Nakata and novelist Koji Suzuki, whose landmark collaboration on The Ring has become symbolic of the entire genre, must be at the head of the list. Dark Water (仄暗い水の底から, Honogurai Mizu no Soko Kara) finds the pair working together again on another supernaturally tinged, creepy psychological thriller. Neatly marrying the classic J-horror tropes of freaky children and dripping wet ghosts, Dark Water also embraces aspects of the uniquely Japanese “hahamono” or mother movie which prizes maternal sacrifice and suffering above all else.

Yoshimi (Hitomi Kuroki), a nervous middle aged woman, is in the middle of a messy divorce with her exceedingly smug salaryman husband. Despite having been less than present during the marriage, Yoshimi’s husband now wants full custody of the couple’s five year old daughter, Ikuko (Rio Kanno). In order to aid her case, Yoshimi quickly finds an apartment and starts looking for a job. All seems to be going well except for the mysterious dripping stain on the ceiling which the building manager doesn’t seem very interested in fixing. Before long, strange events begin unfolding including unexplained puddles, a mysterious red children’s shoulder bag which keeps reappearing after being thrown out, and brief sightings of a little girl in a yellow raincoat….

Nakata opens the film with what is in effect a flashback sequence as Yoshimi waits for her own mother to pick her up from primary school. It quickly becomes apparent that Yoshimi’s relationship with her birth mother was an imperfect one which later ended in neglect and abandonment. Yoshimi continues to have frequent flashbacks to her childhood and harbours and intense fear of inflicting the same kind of damage her mother inflicted on her onto her own daughter. Ikuko is also left waiting at school when Yoshimi is kept late at a job interview – something which is eventually used against her in the court case. Though Yoshimi’s aunt reassures her that she’s doing a much better job than her mother did for her, Yoshimi is filled with doubts as to her suitability as a mother which are only further compounded by her intense love for her daughter and fear of losing her.

On top of her maternal worries and residual abandonment issues, Yoshimi also has a history of mental distress which her ex-husband uses to discredit her. It’s open to debate exactly how much of what appears to be happening is actually happening and how much a manifestation of a possible nervous breakdown, but aside from the supernatural shenanigans there are also real world dangers to consider including the missing posters for a girl who was around Ikuko’s age when she disappeared two years previously. The primary school headmaster is convinced that the girl was abducted by a third party but it also transpires that Mitsuko, like Yoshimi and as Yoshimi fears for Ikuko, was abandoned by her mother.

When it comes right down to it, Dark Water lays the blame for its supernaturally tinged evil firmly at the feet of divorce and family breakdown. The supposedly progressive primary school in which the main aim is to allow children freedom of expression is quick to tell the already overwrought Yoshimi that the “strange behaviour” they’ve been witnessing in Ikuko is essentially all her fault because of the divorce and disruption to Ikuko’s home life. Similarly, the central supernatural threat is born of maternal neglect, a symptom of the selfish individualism of the mother who has chosen to leave her child behind. Yoshimi has been jettisoned by her controlling ex-husband and her only thought is to keep her daughter with her, yet she is being made to pay for a social prejudice against atypical families such as those resulting from a “selfish” decision to dissolve a marriage.

Dark Water cleverly recasts Yoshimi as an idealised mother willing to sacrifice all to protect her child. As the situation intensifies, Yoshimi begins to feel as if she’s becoming a toxic presence in her daughter’s life. Rather than risk the same fate befalling her own daughter as has befallen her, Yoshimi opts to make herself the last link in the chain of abuse, freeing her daughter from her own baggage. In contrast with both Yoshimi and Mitsuko, Ikuko will always know that her mother loved her and will always be with her even if protecting her from afar.

Nakata conjures up a supremely creepy atmosphere filled with everyday horrors. The run down apartment complex in which Yoshimi finds her (presumably very reasonably priced) apartment is an unsettling world of its own with its strangely moist, dripping walls, eccentric residents, and rapidly decaying exterior. One of the most effective and visually interesting entries in the J-horror genre, Dark Water perfectly mixes creepy, supernatural horror with psychological drama culminating in a final sequence which doesn’t stint on the scares but proves emotionally devastating in the process.


Original trailer (English subtitles)