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)

Gentle 12 (12人の優しい日本人, Shun Nakahara, 1991)

161_img_1_oAs you might be able to tell from its title, Gentle 12 (12人の優しい日本人, Juninin no Yasashii Nihonjin) is a loose Japanese parody of the stage play 12 Angry Men notably filmed by Sidney Lumet back in 1957. The Japanese title literally translates as “12 Kindly Japanese Guys” and the film takes the same premise of twelve jurors debating the verdict in a murder case which was previously thought fairly straightforward. This time our jury is a little more balanced as it’s not just guys in the room and even the men are of a more diverse background.

In contrast to the American version, each of our twelve jurors is immediately inclined to acquit and some of them are even walking out the door before one juror, Juror no. 2, raises an objection. He thinks the defendant may be guilty and they should at least talk about it a little more. Irritated, the jurors walk back into the room and enquire why he’s had this sudden change of heart. They will, of course, be entitled to some refreshments now, so what’s the harm in hanging round to talk things through. Eventually people start to switch sides, some in confusion or just wanting to get it over with, but gradually each is exposed as having a personal reason for feeling the way they do that has relatively little to do with the facts of the case.

In contrast to the original stage play, the first instinct of the Japanese jurors is to acquit. No one wants to believe the defendant, who is the mother of a young child accused of pushing her violent ex-husband into the path of an oncoming truck, could have wilfully planned such an outrageous crime in advance. Whatever the facts are, she has clearly suffered enough and her child certainly doesn’t deserve to be orphaned through having its mother taken away by over zealous seekers of “justice”. Nevertheless Juror no.2 doesn’t believe her story and thinks there’s at least the possibility that she pushed him deliberately if not having engineered the entire situation in someway.

As in the American version, they proceed to debate the facts of the case in detail but while some change sides after thinking over the arguments, others are rigidly committed to their positions. Of those in the not guilty camp, some of them can’t quite articulate their reasoning beyond “it’s just a feeling” which proves particularly infuriating to Juror No. 2. The US version placed more emphasis on societal prejudices with personal ones largely backing them up – i.e. they took against the defendant in that case because he was a poor boy from the slums so in their middle class, majority culture minds it was natural that he was guilty. Here, there’s a great deal of sympathy for the defendant who seems to have experienced a lot of misfortune but continues to try and do the best for her young son.

Even so, some take against her because she reminds them of past misfortune of their own, or take against the victim because even as a thoroughly unpleasant man he’d managed to attract himself a pretty wife and son only to misuse and abandon them. Some believe themselves to be excellent judges of character or to be good at spotting a liar only to have their opinions about themselves undermined when scrutinised. The revelations here are personal rather than societal, but the central fact remains that you can’t really ever know or prove what happened and even having witnessed something with your own eyes doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve totally understood the situation fully. Much of the juror’s deliberations consist of creating a narrative out of scattered facts and exercises in supposition. In the end, it more or less comes down to gut feeling anyway.

Originating as a stage play and scripted by Japanese comedy master Koki Mitani, Gentle 12 has its moments of humour and never really takes itself too seriously. What else could you say about a case which seems to hinge on the smallest size of pizza available from a delivery company and how someone might say the words “ginger ale” when really, really angry. The “kindly” jurors also have a wonderful tendency towards tolerance or towards restrained anger that sees them getting quite annoyed whilst trying not to lose their tempers in exasperation or just calmly restating their arguments (or lack thereof) and infuriating everyone else in the process. Neatly filmed by Shun Nakahara, Gentle 12 might not have the same level of cultural bite as its original work suggests but it does prove an enjoyably absurd confined space drama which offers a few cultural revelations of its own.


 

The Snow White Murder Case (白ゆき姫殺人事件, Yoshihiro Nakamura, 2014)

Review of The Snow White Murder Case (白ゆき姫殺人事件, Shiro Yuki Hime Satsujin Jiken) published on UK-anime.net


The sensationalisation of crime has been mainstay of the tabloid press ever since its inception and a much loved subject for gossips and curtain twitchers since time immemorial. When social media arrived, it brought with it hundreds more avenues for every interested reader to have their say and make their own hideously uniformed opinions public contributing to this ever growing sandstorm of misinformation. Occasionally, or perhaps more often than we’d like to admit, these unfounded rumours have the power to ruin lives or push the accused person to a place of unbearable despair. So when the shy and put upon office worker Miki Shirono (Mao Inoue) becomes the prime suspect in the brutal murder of a colleague thanks some fairly convincing circumstantial evidence and the work of one would-be microblogging detective, the resulting trial by Twitter has a profound effect on her already shaky sense of self worth.

The body of Miki Noriko (Nanao) has been found in a wood burned to a crisp after being viciously stabbed multiple times. Beautiful, intelligent and well connected, Noriko seems to have been well loved by her colleagues who are falling over themselves to praise her kind and generous nature, proclaiming disbelief that anyone would do such a thing to so good a person. One of these co-workers, Risako (Misako Renbutsu), happens to have gone to school with TV researcher, Akahoshi (Go Ayano) who’s a total twitter addict and can’t keep anything to himself, and decides to give him the lowdown on the goings on in her office. Apparently the offices of the popular beauty product Snow White Soap was a hotbed of office pilfering filled with interpersonal intrigue of boy friend stealing and complicated romantic entanglements. Working alongside Noriko and Risako was another ‘Miki’, Shirono (Mao Inoe), who tends to be overshadowed by the beautiful and confident Noriko who shares her surname. Shy and isolated, Shirono seems the archetypal office loner and the picture Risako paints of her suggests she’s the sort of repressed, bitter woman who would engage in a bit of revenge theft and possibly even unhinged enough to go on a stabbing spree. Of course, once you start to put something like that on the internet, every last little thing you’ve ever done becomes evidence against you and Shirono finds herself the subject of an internet wide manhunt.

In some ways, the actual truth of who killed Noriko and why is almost irrelevant. In truth, the solution to the mystery itself is a little obvious and many people will probably have encountered similar situations albeit with a less fatal outcome. Safe to say Noriko isn’t quite as white as she’s painted and the film is trying to wrong foot you from the start by providing a series of necessarily unreliable witnesses but in many ways that is the point. There are as many versions of ‘the truth’ as there are people and once an accusation has been made people start to temper their recollections to fit with the new narrative they’ve been given. People who once went to school with Shirono instantly start to recall how she was a little bit creepy and even using evidence of a childhood fire to imply she was some kind of witch obsessed with occult rituals to get revenge on school bullies. Only one university friend stands up for Shirono but, crucially, she is the first one to publicly name her and goes on to give a lot of embarrassing and unnecessary personal details which although they help her case are probably not very relevant. Even this act of seeming loyalty is exposed as a bid for Twitter fame as someone on the periphery of events tries to catapult themselves into the centre by saying “I knew her – I have the real story”.

Of course, things like this have always happened long before the internet and social media took their primary place in modern life. There have always been those things that ‘everybody knows’ that quickly become ‘evidence’ as soon as someone is accused of something. Some people (usually bad people) can cope with these accusations fairly well and carry on with their lives regardless. Other people, like Shirono, are brought down in many ways by their own goodness. What Risako paints as creepy isolation is really mostly crippling shyness. Shirono is one of those innately good people who often puts herself last and tries to look after others – like bringing a handmade bento everyday for a nutritionally troubled colleague or coming up with a way for a childhood friend to feel better about herself. These sorts of people are inherently more vulnerable to these kinds of attacks because they already have an underlying sense of inferiority. As so often happens, this whole thing started because Shirono tried to do something she already thought was wrong and of course it turned into a catastrophe which resulted in her being accused of a terrible crime. The person who manipulated her into this situation likely knew she would react this way and that’s why meek people like Shirono are the ultimate fall guy material.

Like Yoshihiro Nakamura’s previous films (Fish Story, The Foreign Duck, The Native Duck and God in a Coin Locker – both available from Third Window Films), The Snow White Murder Case is full of intersecting plot lines and quirky characters and manages to imbue a certain sense of cosmic irony and black humour into what could be quite a bleak situation. The Twitter antics are neatly displayed through some innovative on screen graphics and the twin themes of ‘the internet reveals the truth’ and ‘the internet accuses falsely’ are never far from the viewer’s mind. It’s testimony to the strength of the characterisation (and of the performances) that Shirono can still say despite everything she’s been through ‘good things will happen’ in attempt to cheer up someone who unbeknownst to her is the author of all her troubles, and have the audience believe it too. A skilful crime thriller in which the crime is the least important thing, The Snow White Murder Case might quite not have the emotional pull of some of the director’s other work but it’s certainly a timely examination of the power of rumour in the internet age.


Original trailer (English subtitles)