Obituary: Juzo Itami
Tuesday 23 December 1997
His father, Mansaku Itami, was a well-known film-maker, scriptwriter and essayist, born in Ehime on the southern island of Shikoku, and there Juzo Itami spent much of his childhood and youth. It was natural that he should follow in his father's footsteps. But from the start he was a rebel against the stifling conventions of Japanese society.
He attended Matsuyama Minami High School, where one of his friends was the future Nobel prize-winning novelist Kenzaburo Oe, who has left us a striking portrait of young Itami in his book of essays Kaifuku suru kazoku (1995), well translated by Stephen Snyder as A Healing Family (1996). In the essay "Sui Generis" Oe tells how the writer Ryotaro Shiba described Itami admiringly as an ijin, a word Oe had to look up in the Kojien dictionary: "ijin: Someone who is different from the norm; a superior person . . . A person who practises mysterious arts; a wizard, a foreigner."
When they first met, "Itami was already in the midst of a battle with the administration over the compulsory uniform rule". Oe says his friend suffered from infringements of his human rights - "oppression, bigotry, discrimination". He was unable to attend a university because he was expelled from school and could not sit the university entrance exam. So he started to work as an illustrator. "But there might have been a smoother, happier way for him to have realised his great potential." He was to remain a lonely individual, an outsider of genius.
Itami moved to Tokyo in 1960, and entered the Daiei movie company as an actor. He specialised in supporting roles, as in Kon Ichikawa's Otohto ("Younger Brother") and Yasuzo Masimura's Nise daigaku sei ("Fake University Student"), both issued in 1960. In the same year he married Kazuko Kawakita. He left Daiei in 1961, and started writing talented literary essays, as his father had done. He played small parts in Nicholas Ray's 1963 film 55 Days at Peking alongside Charlton Heston and Ava Gardner, and in Richard Brooks's Lord Jim (1965) with Peter O'Toole.
He joined the Nikkatsu Movie Co in 1964, and played supporting parts in his "cynical intellectual" vein in a number of movies including Nagisa Oshima's 1967 Nippon shunka ko ("A Treatise on the Japanese Bawdy Song") and Ichikawa's 1975 adaptation of Soseki Natsume's classic Wagahai wa nako dearu ("I Am a Cat"). His acting career made a big step forward when he appeared in Yoshimitsu Morita's 1983 box-office success Kazoku Gemu ("Family Game"). He won acting awards for best supporting actor, and an Emmy for his Prince Genji in the classic television series.
But for Itami acting was just a means of becoming a director. In 1984 he was at last able to script and direct his first cinematic success, Ososhiki ("Funeral"), a wry, wickedly satirical comedy about the conventions of Japanese funeral ceremonies in which an elderly man dies, very improbably, of a heart attack after dining on an avocado. The whole drama is about the would-be-solemn yet comical way his bourgeois son and daughter-in- law strive to carry out the ceremonies according to precise rules. Itami's second wife Nobuko appeared in this and all his subsequent films, and it was a very big hit in Japan.
In 1986, he wrote and directed Tampopo ("Dandelion") a cruel satire about the "gourmet boom-u" of the affluent Eighties. It was called "the first noodle western" because it was set in a down-and-out cheap ramen (instant noodles) joint. A truck driver falls for the proprietress and shows her how to transform her dump into a gourmet rendezvous priding itself upon serving the best bowl of ramen in town. True to the best western movie tradition, he drives off into the sunset. There are several realistic portraits of Japanese and their comic attitudes towards food. It attracted large audiences in Japan but also in the United States and especially in France, that temple of superior cuisine, where all the little ramen shops catering to the Japanese in the Opera area began to boom, and served many foreign customers.
There followed a string of satirical successes, all starring Itami's wife, and dealing in an almost instructional documentary manner with various controversial themes: money in Marutai no onna ("A Taxing Woman", 1987) and its sequel in 1989; sex in Ageman ("Good Luck Girl", 1990) and gangster violence in Minbo no onna ("Gang-fighting Woman", 1992).
Serious troubles for Itami began when the yakuza mob retaliated by sending five hit men to attack him with knives, inflicting severe wounds. But Itami recovered and went on undaunted to make more disturbing films like Daibyoin ("The Great Patient") in 1995, a comedy on stomach cancer which is also a profound meditation on death, and the 1996 Supermarket Woman laying bare hidden supermarket malpractices. In 1995 he also made a film based on his friend Oe's writings, A Quiet Life.
But misfortune continued to shadow Juzo Itami's existence. During a showing of Daibyoin, an ultra-rightist slashed the screen in protest against Minbo no onna's alleged defilement of the Japanese flag. The police had to provide armed guards for Itami and his wife, but even this had its comic side, for in Marutai no onna we see Nobuko Miyamoto performing in her hilarious super-production of Antony and Cleopatra with a cop following her everywhere, disguised as a spear-toting Roman.
The final blow to Itami's self-esteem came from scurrilous gossip about his sex life in Flash, one of the cheap sensational weeklies now proliferating in Japan. Revelations about Itami's involvement with a 26-year-old girl, with paparazzi photos to prove them, were to appear in the 22 December number. Itami denied all the charges, but as he wrote in one of his farewell notes, "to prove my innocence" he jumped from the roof of his eight-storey block. He was dead on arrival at the hospital. The inquest showed he had been drinking heavily.
He stipulated that no funeral ceremonies should be held. Instead, Oe and his family will watch videos of all his films, that let a breath of fresh air into the stagnant life of Jap-anese movies, now at last showing a revival, thanks to his uncompromising efforts.
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