“As I learned more about Japan… I began to realize something unexpected; the object of my affection was neither pure nor perfect. She had a dark side, a seedy underbelly…”
By Alexis Franks
When I think back on what drew me to Japanese studies, I can’t help but chuckle. It was a scene from Natsume Souseki’s Kokoro, a novel about a young man who befriends an aged teacher known only as “Sensei.” This scene contains all the quietude and pathos that novice Japanophiles crave: a pair of run-down teahouses on a rocky stretch of beach; gulls shrieking over the calm black sea; a lonely old man at the water’s edge, rinsing salt from his bathing costume and humming a Japanese folk song under his breath. This is what I want, I thought. Give me more of this.
As I learned more about Japan, the country that I had fallen so hard for, though, I began to realize something unexpected: the object of my affection was neither pure nor perfect. She had a dark side, a seedy underbelly. And, in time, her vices became more fascinating, more lovable, than her virtues.
The filmmaker Juzo Itami (1933-1997) made it his life’s work to explore these vices of his mother country, to turn the classic image of a timeless, wa-drenched Japan on its head. During his time as an actor, Itami gained enormous popularity for his portrayal of a childish, workaholic father in Yoshimitsu Morita’s subversive take on the Japanese education and family systems, The Family Game (Kazoku Ge-mu, 1983). It is difficult to erase the image of Itami, as the clueless head of the Numata clan, pouting to his exhausted wife that his morning eggs “aren’t runny enough,” that he can’t bring the plate to his mouth and noisily suck them up. “I like doing that,” he moans.
Itami`s first foray as a director, The Funeral (Ososhiki, 1984), won him international acclaim. A satire, The Funeral relates the pathetically funny attempts of a “modern” Japanese family to put together a traditional funeral service for their deceased grandfather. When they congregate in the room where the service will take place, no one knows how to address the priest or to sit properly – an uncle lists and finally tumbles to the side as his leg falls asleep. When they try to practice the Buddhist chanting that will feature heavily in the service, the daughter of the dead man can’t find her husband, who must lead the ritual, because he’s busy ravishing his secretary in the bushes just beyond the house.
The money that Itami earned from The Funeral enabled him to finance his next three features: Dandelion (Tampopo, 1985); A Taxing Woman (Marusa no onna, 1988); and A Taxing Woman`s Return (Marusa no onna II, 1989). In the first, Itami explores the Japanese fascination with food and the ecstatic, almost orgasmic pleasure that Japanese people get from eating. Dandelion works as a series of vignettes. It follows, by turns, the story of a young woman who gets pointers on making the perfect ramen dish from a truck-driving stranger; the frustrations faced by an etiquette teacher trying to show her middle-aged female students “the proper European way” to eat spaghetti, which involves no slurping, no sucking, and no draining of bowls; and the comings and goings of a young couple who rent a room in a love hotel during their lunch hour each day, cracking egg after egg and transferring the yolks back and forth between their mouths as a form of foreplay.
A Taxing Woman and A Taxing Woman`s Return both star Nobuko Miyamoto, Itami`s real-life wife. Not pretty in any conventional sense, Miyamoto is known for portraying characters admired more for their pluck than their physical attributes. She is the “taxing woman” of the titles of these films, a high-level inspector for the Japanese Tax Bureau, which, at the time the films were made, was authorized to confiscate up to 80 percent of a civilian’s yearly earnings for tax purposes. Miyamoto presents her inspector, Ms. Itakura, as a woman who loves her job, who uses her smarts and her charm to sniff out the increasingly ingenious scams of tax evaders. There is the businessman who hires young nurses in dementia wards of hospitals to seduce frail, dying patients so he can hide assets in their inactive bank accounts; there is the pachinko parlor owner who squirrels bankbooks away in custom-made cigarette cases and slot machines. And there is the teenage boy, befriended by Ms. Itakura, whose electronics-selling enterprise at school turns out to be a front for his father’s money-laundering operation.
Itami stopped working for a few years after the release of Minbo, or the Gentle Art of Japanese Extortion (Minbo no onna, 1992), which also features his wife. This film follows the exploits of a young woman who takes it upon herself to resist feeble-minded extortion attempts by Japanese yakuza bosses. The story so offended real yakuza members that a gang of them ambushed Itami outside his home and beat and slashed him to within an inch of his life. He spent several months in the intensive care ward of a nearby hospital.
In 1997, five years after his hospitalization, Juzo Itami committed suicide by leaping from the roof of his office building. A Japanese tabloid, Flash, had published an article the week before accusing Itami of cheating on his actress wife (a charge he denied in his suicide note). If this sad event had featured in one of his movies, the Itami character would have survived; at the last minute, an onlooker would have talked him down from the roof or a flatbed truck would have passed by the building at just the right spot to provide him with a soft place to land. He would have gone on with his life, chalking up the experience to a moment of bleak, and not altogether unamusing, insanity. But it was real life, not a movie, and Itami died, finally reverting back to a “typical” Japanese man who chose to resolve the (real or perceived) sins of his life with the ultimate act of self-sacrifice.
When I consider Itami`s last act, I wonder if my first impression of Japan, the one gleaned from Kokoro, wasn`t correct. If a man like Itami can kill himself to settle his earthly accounts, I think, then maybe Japan really is all about solitary suffering and the fleeting poignancy of life. Maybe the sea and the gulls and the humming old man have it. But then I recall Itami, as Mr. Numata in The Family Game, contentedly licking egg yolk from the tip of his nose, and I change my mind. And I love Japan more.
Films of Hiroshima
If you’d like to know more about Juzo Itami, there is a museum in Matsuyama. For more information, please check out the website at http://itami-kinenkan.jp/.
Hiroshima-ken has a rich film history as well. Here is just a sampling of the many fine films with a connection to the ken.
Filmed in Onomichi, this 1953 classic was directed by Ozu Yasujiro and tells the story of an elderly couple who travel to Tokyo to visit their children, who are busy with their own hectic lives and consequently do not make time for their parents. The film is frequently cited as one of the top ten greatest films of all time.
Yamato (Otoko-tachi no Yamato)
While not considered a classic by any means, this recent blockbuster was also filmed in and around Onomichi. It tells the story of the ill-fated battleship Yamato during the last days of WWII.
Hiroshima, Mon Amour
This French New Wave film, directed in 1959 by Alain Resnais, concerns an affair between a French actress and a Japanese man who survived the bombing of Hiroshima. The film is considered very innovative for its use of flashbacks.
Parts of Beat Takeshi’s 2003 take on the tales of Zatoichi the blind swordsman were filmed in Fukuyama.
Ponyo on a Cliff
Miyazaki’s next film, concerning a goldfish princess who wants to become human, takes inspiration from Tomo-no-ura, where Miyakaki briefly lived in 2005.