My favorite scene in Itami Jūzō’s action-comedy crowdpleaser A Taxing Woman (マルサの女, or Marusa no Onna, 1987) is the heroine, Itakura admiring a stuffed leopard in the home of her target, businessman/scam artist Gondō. In one moment, she’s serious and focused, like she might be about to cut the leopard open to find money stuffed inside; then, she’s amused, grinning playfully at the leopard, calling it cute. The luxuriousness of the leopard contrasts with the dullness of her pageboy haircut and simple clothing, but they both have spots: Itakura has an amazing splash of freckles across her face.
In the 1980s, Itami Jūzō, an actor-turned-director from one of Japan’s filmmaking dynasties, made a set of comedies sending up social norms. Each of them examines the clash between some area of life full of restrictive nonsense rules — funerals, table manners, the yakuza — and the absurd actualities of living within those rules. His first film, The Funeral (1983), features an actor going to the countryside to oversee his father-in-law’s funeral. The film’s arc goes through all the minutiae of funeral planning, including a videotape of how to correctly greet mourners, questions of food portions, and how to get rid of guests who stay too long. Though often billed in the West as a comedy about Japanese culture specifically, it’s only the details of a Japanese Buddhist funeral and familial norms that are unique to Japan; the observation that life continues on in the midst of death, as ridiculous as ever, despite our attempts to master the correct rules, is universal.
His next film ended up being his best known abroad, probably because there’s a famous sex scene involving a raw egg (movie fans are all perverts): Tampopo (1984). The titular character (“Tampopo” means Dandelion, a ridiculous name in Japanese as well), wants to train in the art of ramen-making from a truck driver with deep culinary connections. Parodying Westerns and martial arts films in Tampopo’s journey to master the soup, the main plot is intercut with vignette scenes on edible cultural differences, gourmet aphrodisiacs, and cinematic conventions.
Both of these movies are about how we as humans take something natural and inevitable — death, food, sex — and make it into a parade of artificial rules. The rules block us from the simplicity of direct contact with our nature as dying/eating/desiring animals, but that unnecessary complication is also what makes being human fun and weird (good weird and bad weird.)
His next film, A Taxing Woman (1987) treats this clash more literally: tax investigator Itakura Ryōko takes on a lover, hotel baron Gondō Hideki, whose cleverness and charisma almost make her give up her devotion to the law as he catches her up in the fun of puzzling out how his vice empire hides its money. Tax investigation is a serious business — Al Capone, most famously, went to prison for tax evasion rather than any violent crimes. I included A Taxing Woman in an “anti-Trump but we can’t say that” film series because I thought “tax investigation of a scammer/hotel owner results in the downfall of his real estate empire” was a hopeful message for late 2016 (I didn’t fully grasp the levels of absurdity we’d fall into by 2020). I wouldn’t simplify A Taxing Woman in this way any more. For me now, the takeaway is that every form of pleasure today exists at a crossroads of fun and restriction and that, for some, the restriction is where the game gets really good. And that money is ridiculous. Who came up with that idea?
Rather than the timeless complexities of death and food in the earlier films, A Taxing Woman weaves together threads that would become typical of contemporary Japan: intrusive bureaucracy, love hotels, pachinko parlors, yakuza real estate schemes. (The sequel expands that list to include deceptive cults, obviously still a significant part of Japanese politics if you’ve been following the Abe assassination.) These are all part of the 1980s economic bubble, which would cycle into the burst of the 1990s and Japan’s still-ongoing economic stagnation. The contradiction of A Taxing Woman is that postwar society advocates for unfettered capitalist ambition and achievement — but the tax (wo)man comes for those who succeed the most.
The focus on a female protagonist: it reverses the typical noir/crime film convention where the woman enters the story to disrupt its order — either as an untrustworthy femme fatale or a damsel in distress. Itakura is, by contrast, a detective in the vein of Sherlock Holmes, notably unconcerned with her appearance (her boss constantly tells her to fix her hair) and fascinated by solving puzzles of criminality, despite her allegiance to the law. She’s a single mother to a young boy who is only shown to demonstrate how her devotion to her job takes precedence over everything else. Nonetheless, she has a motherly quality, smiling at babies and bonding with Gondō’s ambitious teenage son.
She’s also unencumbered by workplace sexism. Though her reassignment to the elite MINPO means joining an all-male team, she’s treated as one of the boys, just one with a special insight into women. Since the criminals they track down frequently use women — wives and mistresses — to hide keys, money, and signature stamps, this means Itakura’s ability to coolly analyze women’s behavior makes her a major asset. In one scene, a suspect’s mistress appears to hide a key in her clothing while washing dishes, leading the male investigators to try a strip search; the mistress dramatically strips and throws her legs wide open as the male investigators stare on in shock and arousal. Only Itakura, free from distraction, can guess that the mistress actually hid the key under the sink while the men were fixated on getting her bra off.
This sexism-free vision of the tax investigation office recalls a question I got recently while teaching the film. Students wondered if the film was on Itakura’s side, that is, the tax bureau’s. One scholar, Keiko MacDonald, in Reading a Japanese Film: Cinema in Context referred to the tax office here as a “brave new world of ideal bureaucrats” (170). It may be a seemingly ideal workplace for Itakura, but the film originated in Itami’s frustrations with tax investigations after his first films, unfortunately, made enough money for him to get audited.
The film reflects the less-than-heroic side of tax investigation in an early scene where Itakura interviews the owners of a literal Mom and Pop store. She ruthlessly explains to them that they have underreported their taxable income because they’ve been eating food from the store without reporting it as sales. Since the food is owned by the business and not by them, they can’t just take it. This makes sense in a world where corporations can be people (let’s call it Tax World) but not in the lived experience of Mom and Pop. Tax World intersects with the real world, but only as an awkward mismatch.
The film gets a kick out of making the boring-at-best, hated-at-worst figure of the tax collector a hero. The cheerful triumphs of Itakura and the tax bureau here, therefore, seem less like an idealization of a perfect tax investigation squad and more like a parody of how bureaucrats see themselves — champions for good, if we take “good” to mean checking off every form correctly. (Complete aside, but when I was working at a law firm that defended tax cases, the IRS was going after people who had failed to disclose they had more than $10,000 in a foreign bank account; often, they had failed to disclose it because tax preparation software checked “no” automatically on the 1040 because so few people have income in foreign bank accounts. Most of the time, they didn’t owe tax on this income, but failing to declare it meant they owed a fine. These are the thrills of Tax World!
This depiction sets the film up for its overall parody of what money drives us to do. On the one hand, it drives the criminals to hide it in secret rooms and secret bank accounts and use nurses to seduce old men into giving up their ID stamps — this comedic angle of the film is obvious and often-noted. On the other hand, it makes the law send investigators to play pachinko and chase down garbage bags — the absurdity of this, I think, is less clear in reactions to the film. Both sides are, unlike the mom-and-pop store owners, fully aware of Tax World and its logic; for both, playing games with the rules and figuring out those games becomes an end in itself, separate from how the money can be spent.
This game is fleshed out as Gondō and Itakura become closer, bonding over parenthood and their hopes of better things for their sons. (Gondō’s son, hilariously, confides in Itakura that he’s already running scams at school.) At the end of the film, Gondō asks Itakura if she would consider coming over to his side, which can be read as either a business or romantic proposal (or both?). She turns him down, because despite her attraction to the intellectual challenge of crime, she’s ultimately loyal to a lawful good code of ethics. Or maybe she simply prefers solving the scams to executing them. Even playing different sides of the same game, she has the same unchangeable spots as Gondō’s stuffed leopard.