Trigger Warning: Suicide is mentioned in this article.
How does an internationally acclaimed filmmaker, hailed once as “the heir of Kurosawa”, fall into the abyss of obsolescence? Japanese director Juzo Itami’s films are celebrated in the West, but Itami himself remains shrouded in mystery.
Japan was a melting pot in the 1980s, culturally and philosophically. In particular, the Japanese youth obsessed over Hollywood and American media. Juzo Itami, who made his directing debut in 1983, later complained in an interview, “The Japanese are a people who for a long time have wanted to become Americans.” Itami deemed this phenomenon to have come from Japan’s loss in the World War, similar to that of Stockholm Syndrome, of which he was very critical. In fact, the entire collection of Itami’s cinema was effectively commentary on what he saw as the many flaws of Japanese society. Take The Funeral for example, Itami’s surprisingly lighthearted debut film inspired by his father’s passing. While exploring the many ways the Japanese deal with loss, Itami was also unafraid to criticize Japanese traditions, values and social norms. The Buddhist monk in the film was shown to be a greedy and deceitful figure, utilizing his religious occupation to profit off of funerals, a striking contrast to his venerable position.
This is the magic of Itami’s film. The films are not comedic skits, but magnifying glasses, exposing the ridiculous ways traditional values dictate how people should be treated. Women were, and still are, oppressed in Japan: From crushing social expectations to unfaithful husbands, suppressing emotions in the face of these obstacles becomes impossible. Many women turn to crime. Itami was a feminist ahead of his time. His female characters start off in difficult situations: “Tampopo” struggles heavily to make ends meet, the “taxing woman” is outsmarted by the cunning business man, and “Inoue” is defeated by gangsters. This makes it even more inspiring when the characters overcome their problems. Seeing Tampopo diligently mastering the arts of culinary, following the taxing woman as she digs through garbage to search for evidence, and witnessing Inoue standing back up to the Yakuza—to the audience, this is Itami’s brand of subtle-yet-profound feminism.
Unfortunately, Juzo Itami’s progressive crusade ended abruptly when he was found dead near his office in 1997. He had leapt off of the building, and the police, after discovering insufficient evidence to prove anything otherwise, announced that he had committed suicide. On Itami’s office desk lay a note. Inside was a brief explanation of what had ‘happened’: Itami had been accused of having an affair, and the suicide was his attempt to show his innocence. Japan was horrified, but Itami’s friends and family were skeptical. Itami had always shown contempt toward most traditional Japanese rituals. Since honor suicides were arguably the most extreme and orthodox of these practices, it seemed to absurd for Itami to die like this. Officially, however, the case was closed.
In 2008, a theory was put forth that Juzo Itami did not commit suicide, but was murdered. In the process of writing a book, the American journalist Jake Adelstein was interviewing a former yakuza member when the former yakuza revealed a jaw-dropping claim: that the mob had murdered Juzo Itami. No substantial evidence backs this up, but Itami’s death at the hands of Yakuza is not inconceivable. While the director’s criticism of Japanese society garnered impressive praise, it also attracted unwanted, hostile attention. In the film The Gentle Art of Japanese Extortion or Minbo, Itami mocked the yakuza as hotheaded fools and lawless criminals. His message was clear: The yakuza, whom the media had always praised as chivalrous and anti-establishment, were no more than criminals. Six days after Minbo’s release in 1992, the director was attacked by several men. But Itami was not about to let his injuries stop him. He wrote a letter to the public addressing the situation, saying, “Yakuza must not be allowed to deprive us of our freedom through violence and intimidation, and this is the message of my movie. What worries me most about this incident is that people might think that the yakuza really are scary. It would be a shame if people were disheartened just when the public is beginning to stand up against organized crime.” Rumours had it that Itami was working on the screenplay of another yakuza-related movie when he died. Juzo Itami lives on through his cinema, despite a close call where his films were nearly lost. Luckily, the Criterion Channel, among other platforms, have archived his films. The story of Juzo Itami is complicated but best summed up in the words of Inoue (from Minbo), “Everybody dies sometime. And it’s better to die for your beliefs than live as a coward. Remember that always.” We may only be able to make out glimpses of Itami’s genius through the few films he was able to create, but his love for humanity and his attempts to improve it are apparent—he truly was an exceptional character.