It takes a special type of talent to turn a tax auditing bureaucrat into a charismatic supercop lead, but trust director Juzo Itami to pull it off. “A Taxing Woman” (1987) was his third film and is instantly recognizable to fans of the director: it wears a charming grin, stars his wife Nobuko Miyamoto and skips along with understated cleverness and comedic ease. The result feels much like a hybrid of “Out of Sight” (1998) and “Ikiru” (1952), gently tuned by Itami’s particular camerawork and staging.
“A Taxing Woman” begins with an extended opening montage in which Hideki Gondo (Tsutomu Yamazaki) exploits every trick he can think of to evade taxes, from tucking away profits in a secret vault to paying off nurses to seduce patients into signing off on dummy corporations that can be used for laundering his money. Gondo is a sly and slippery businessman who runs love hotels, cooperates with the criminal underworld, sleeps with a bevy of mistresses and enjoys threading tax loopholes just for art’s sake. For all that, he’s a strangely compelling figure, a concerned father and a man driven more by gamesmanship than malice or even greed.
“A Taxing Woman” couches a social message that warns us of plummeting integrity and widespread greed, but Itami knows that he’s making a comedy and not a polemic. In keeping with this, his camerawork focuses on the minutia of interpersonal tension – sometimes just the nonverbal play of casual gestures, expressive looks and slightly silly gaits – more so than action, violence or seedy atmosphere.
Itami’s sense of humor isn’t exactly subtle, but it also isn’t loud in the sense of discrete setups and pithy lines. He has a knack for simply depicting things in a way that brings out their amusing side, often times through Tati-esque choreography.
I don’t think “A Taxing Woman” is quite as funny or original as Itami’s better-known “Tampopo” (1985), but the director makes better use of Tokyo, diving in and out of a buzzing metropolis defined more by its crowds than its architecture. It’s a city Itami depicts as burdened by too many minor corruptions for every crook to be collared, but not plagued by the type of big ticket crimes that would compromise his underlying optimism.
Katie and I disagreed about the upbeat rubbery jazz theme, which she seemed to consider garish 80’s trash. I rather liked it, though I’m not sure what defense I can offer. It’s repeated too often and doesn’t spin off far enough to get interesting, but somehow it captures the spirit of both Gondo’s cheek and Ryoko’s pluck.
Juzo Itami is pretty much a style and movement unto himself, a light-hearted, more compassionate voice than is found in most Japanese films from the last decade and a half. You owe it to yourself to see at least “Tampopo” or “A Taxing Woman,” if you haven’t already. I’ve found myself surprised that Itami’s entire filmography is not more readily available, but I’ve reaffirmed my interest in tracking down more of his work even if Netflix can’t help me. Many consider his only sequel, “A Taxing Woman Returns” (1988), at least as good as the original, and that might be the direction I head next.
Walrus Rating: 8