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)

Like Someone in Love (UK Anime Network Review)

Like_someone_in_love_quad_v5_HRFirst published on UK Anime Network in June 2013.

Like Someone In Love is only Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami’s second international venture after 2010’s Certified Copy but this time sees his familiar preoccupations with ambiguities and poetic imagery transported to modern day Tokyo. Although in this case all the characters are quite clearly drawn and presented somewhat unambiguously, the reasoning behind the decisions they make and the way they behave, however, remains oblique. The title implies someone is acting ‘like someone in love’ if not exactly ‘in love’ themselves but who is it, who or what are they (‘almost’?) in love with, and what exactly would that mean – these are all the gentle ambiguities that Kiarostami wishes us to think about in this perfectly excised cross section of modern life.

As the film opens we are placed statically looking onto a scene which appears to be some sort of bar, a woman’s voice can be heard speaking to someone – not us, this clearly isn’t a voice over, there is obviously someone else involved in this dialogue that we cannot hear. We search the screen for the owner of the voice and even though we can see that nobody else is speaking somehow the thought that the woman is off camera hasn’t quite occurred to us. Eventually we find a young woman has been talking on the phone, presumably to her boyfriend – ‘I’m not lying’ she says, though we know she is. The boyfriend suspects her and makes her go to the bathroom to count the number of tiles so he can come there later and compare to see if she’s telling the truth.

Shortly afterwards, an older man (Denden) starts talking to her and encourages her to break up with said jealous boyfriend ‘not just for business reasons’ but as fatherly advice. He wants her to visit ‘a very important man’, she doesn’t want to because she’s tired after cramming all night for an exam and anyway her grandmother is in town and she’d like to see her. The man makes it very clear he isn’t forcing her, but he leaves her no room to refuse and she goes anyway even though she doesn’t want to. He puts her in a taxi for an hour’s drive across the city – on the way she gets a message from her grandmother that she’ll be waiting outside the station until her train so Akiko (Rin Takanashi) asks the driver to pass the station twice just so she can catch a glimpse of her.

Fast asleep in the car she arrives at a rather nondescript little address behind a ramen shop where a retired sociology professor (now sometime translator), Watanabe (Tadashi Okuno), lives. As soon as they enter the phone rings and Akiko takes the opportunity to poke around – she finds some pictures of an older and a younger woman – a wife and daughter perhaps? Strangely they look a little like her, as does the woman trying to teach a parrot to speak in the famous print on one wall.  ‘I always thought the parrot was teaching the woman’ Akiko says and the professor laughs. Still tired she makes straight for the bedroom, undresses and gets into the bed. This wasn’t what the old man had in mind though – he’s cooked a full dinner and bought wine, soft music ‘Like Someone in Love’ is playing in the background. After trying to convince her to eat and failing the professor gives up and turns the light out to let her sleep.

The next morning he drives her to school only to witness an altercation with the jealous boyfriend, Noriaki (Ryo Kase) who’s been lurking in wait after not being able to get through on Akiko’s phone. It’s clear he’s angry, he grabs at her then sulks after she goes inside before trying to talk to the professor, mistakenly thinking he’s her grandfather. He of course keeps up the pretense simply by not (directly) correcting the mistake. It’s clear though that something is coming to head and the meeting of these three people is going to produce a fundamental change in one or all of their lives.

Like Someone in Love might be one of those films where the reaction to it says much more about the viewer than it does about the film. It’s so much more about what isn’t said, the things that one infers from brief snippets of possible backstory than it is about what is actually seen on the screen. We don’t know exactly why Akiko got into this line of work or why she does it or even how she really feels about it. It’s plain in the first scene that she doesn’t want to go, at least tonight, and that she’s refused to go before but when she arrives at Watabe’s house she’s anything but coy and seems every inch the seasoned pro ready to get down to business. She’s a cipher, the clearest thing you can say about her is that she’s defined by her own passivity. She says she won’t go and then bows to pressure and goes, she obviously wants to break up with her awful boyfriend but doesn’t, she wants to see her grandmother but obeys her pimp(?) instead. She seems to spend her entire life bowing to the whims of other people rather than making any sort of decision for herself.

The two men by contrast appear as virtual mirror images of each other. The elderly scholar Watanabe, contemplative and introspective and the violent, obsessively jealous high school dropout garage owning Noriaki. What is Watanabe’s interest in Akiko? Is this something he’s done often? it seems maybe not, perhaps this is a gift from his former student now Akiko’s ‘boss’. At any rate it seems he’s after some kind of romantic evening rather than a torrid few moments in bed with a girl young enough to be his granddaughter. He’s arranged things for her comfort – cooking her local dish, lighting candles, setting the dinner table etc just as someone in love might do. Perhaps he’s just lonely (though his phone is always ringing and he never answers it) and wants to relive fondly remembered memories of his wife. Noriaki by contrast seems much more territorial – he wants to own Akiko, he’s decided she’s useless on her own and needs his protection but he’s obviously terrified someone’s going to steal her out from under him. He’s also hugely over sensitive about the phone box card which looks like Akiko (because we know it is) maybe because he’s got a Madonna-whore conception of women to begin with.

The film ends as abruptly as it started which is inevitably going to be a problem for many viewers. This is not the end, but it is an end – perhaps the beginning of something new rather than the end of something old. An internal world is penetrated – like the intrusion of falling in love into an otherwise dull life, old securities prove inadequate and perhaps it’s harder to protect the things that are precious to you than you might hope (especially if you are old and your aggressor is not). In many ways we are like the old curtain twitcher whose sole entertainment is her window onto Watanabe’s doorstep – we can’t know what happened before our one and only window was opened, nor can we know what will happen once it’s closed but still we can’t help but wonder.

Available now in the UK from New Wave Films.