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 Touch of Fever (二十才の微熱, Ryosuke Hashiguchi, 1993)

Touch of FeverRyosuke Hashiguchi’s debut feature A Touch of Fever (二十才の微熱, Hatachi no Binetsu) proved a surprise box office hit in Japan and is also credited for helping to bring male homosexuality into the mainstream. A no-budget movie shot on 16mm, A Touch of Fever is the story of two ordinary boys each going about their everyday lives whilst also beginning to understand themselves in terms of their sexualities, mirroring each other perfectly in their inner confusion.

Tatsuru is a college student by day, but he spends his nights working at Pinocchio’s where he entertains male customers looking for some no strings action with a disinterested young man. Among the other youngish guys working at the club is Shin who is actually still in high school. Shin is out to his parents, but they haven’t taken it well so he’s couch surfing, leading to him to ask Tatsuru if he could temporarily move in with him. Along with all of the practical problems this may raise, Shin has something of a crush on his older colleague, but Tatsuru is filled with doubts about many things and his apartment is in no way big enough to contain this particular elephant in the room.

Tatsuru is about as detached as they come. He claims that he can separate love and sex and that for him his work is just a mechanical action that he happens to be pretty good at. The first client we see him with interrogates him about his non-compensatory love life, assuming that he must have a girlfriend. Tatsuru gives a non-committal answer about whether he also sleeps with women which offers the first indication of his slight resistance to the idea of being gay even if he has no problem earning a living through sleeping with men. Throughout the film he also conducts a parallel (platonic, if fliratious) relationship with an older female student, though when he decides to try and take things further she more or less shuts him down explaining that she’s confused about her feelings for him – she wants him in her life, but probably not in a romantic way. As if to underline the point, an attendant begins to spray cleaning fluid over the passenger side window of the car Tatsuru is sitting in, effectively painting him out of the picture.

Shin, on the other hand, is very clear about his sexuality but less so about the idea of selling it for money. Uncomfortable with the atmosphere at the club, Shin has decided he only wants to do it with people he likes, as impractical as that may turn out to be. What Shin wants is romance, but that’s exactly what Tatsuru is currently unable to acknowledge. When taken to task by one of Shin’s female friends, Tatsuru offers a series of justifications about different kinds of love but remains rational and closed down. At the moment it appears something may happen between the pair, it’s Shin who ultimately can’t follow through. Whether due to “chickening out” as his friend accuses, a lack of belief in his object of affection, or simple vulnerability, Shin is not quite ready to acknowledge his true feelings either.

Both boys have also become estranged from their families and particularly with their fathers. Tatsuru’s father leaves gruff answerphone messages and then when he finally gets through, suggests that his son is a drain on his resources that he could well do without. Having left Tatsuru’s mother for another woman, dad is now cash strapped – so much so that his new partner has had to have an abortion because of all the loans he’s taken out for Tatsuru’s fees. The final parting blow is to say that (contrary to the suggestion of a complete divorce between father and son) Tatsuru is now the sole heir of the Shinomori name which is yet another burden for guy who may be gay and therefore may not necessarily be looking to pass that name on. Shin’s father had something of an apoplexy when he found out his son was gay and threatened to have him sent away to the self defence force for some “toughening” up, going so far to trample all over Shin’s dreams of becoming a fashion designer and leading him to leave home at such a young age.

Hashiguchi’s first feature is his most melancholy but also oddly innocent. A theme which recurs throughout his career – that love is sad and ultimately impossible, rears its head during the film’s final scene in which Hashiguchi himself plays a sinister customer. This uncomfortably long sequence which breaks with the formalist camera movements of the the earlier part in favour of destabilising, unbroken handheld, acts as the climax of the film as the pair are once again symmetrically opposed. Tatsuru likes things impersonal but this guy wants to talk, whereas Shin craves connection but finds the customer unpleasant in his wheedling, direct and almost forceful approach. “You wouldn’t know the pain of being unable to speak out about how you really feel”, says the customer, oblivious to the obvious subtext. This long, strange, and uncomfortable encounter does at least lead both boys into the centre ground, making each clearer both about themselves independently and about whatever it is that exists between them.

Contrary to the customer’s assertion about the impossibility of true connection, the film ends on a note of hope as the boys walk home together with a little more lightness in their steps. When Shin enquires how much Tatsuru was paid for something that he previously disapproved of but seems to have got over now, he tells him he’s underselling himself and ought to value himself more. Tatsuru says he’ll bear that in mind – that has, after all, been the problem all along. In one sense, the “fever” has broken – a weight has been lifted, leaving both boys freer to go about their lives with more clarity and less angst. Perhaps it isn’t all so sad and impossible after all.


Original trailer (no subtitles)