A Taxing Woman’s Return

The most popular filmmaker in Japan right now is a man named Jûzô Itami, director of Tampopo and A Taxing Woman. Those films have also done well in America and elsewhere, but reportedly the Japanese look forward to “the new Itami” with the kind of anticipation people used to reserve for the new Beatles album.

Probably that’s because Itami’s movies, while being vastly entertaining, are also unblinking portraits of modern Japan. In A Taxing Woman’s Return, the sequel to his previous hit, Itami has made his most biting social satire yet. It’s a different sort of movie, however; where A Taxing Woman was about a character, the dogged-but-pixieish tax inspector, the sequel is about a system.

That system is Itami’s vision of an incredibly choked and intricate web of business and politics in today’s Japan. A Taxing Woman’s Return, though a funny film, is much blacker than its predecessor in damning the state of things.

The tax inspector Ryoko (played again by the splendid Nobuko Miyamoto, who is married to Itami) is still on the job, but she is somewhat in the background. Most of the film is given over to the complicated dealings surrounding a real-estate scam; it’s all funneled through a religious cult used as a front for organized crime. Itami has fun with the crazy religious group, which resembles the Kahili cult from Help!, and whose leaders are like Jim and Tammy Bakker crossed with Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos.

As Itami draws his various threads together, he indulges in some great set-pieces, such as Ryoko’s hand-to-hand standoff with a knife-wielding intruder – of course the tiny tax inspector holds her ground – and a session in which an investigator receives an erotic honey massage from some kind of geisha. (As usual, Itami includes some spirited sex that skirts close to porn.)

As with Itami’s other movies, the social observation is penetrating, yet his pacing seems strangely deliberate for comedy. But A Taxing Woman’s Return is certainly his own. And considering the upheavals that are shaking Japanese politics even this week, his film seems downright prophetic.

First published in The Herald, June 1989

Itami made six films after this, and died in 1997, officially a suicide – but it might have been a mob-related murder. Earlier, after his 1992 film Minbo criticized the yakuza, Itami was jumped by thugs and had his face slashed. Which makes remembering the knife-wielding scene in this movie a little strange.

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