Filmmaker Juzo Itami succeeds by poking fun


December 27, 1990|By John E. Woodruff | John E. Woodruff,Tokyo Bureau of The Sun


The world's greatest economic powerhouse is staffed by some of the world's weakest men.

From that simple but stark assumption, Japan's movie-directing sensation of the 1980s has fashioned "Ageman," the film he hopes will carry his momentum into the 1990s.

"Japan has not yet invented fatherhood as a part of its culture," filmmaker Juzo Itami explained last month at a preview for foreign correspondents. "So where most societies have three main figures -- father, mother and child -- Japan has only two, and men grow up to be children."

That is the kind of talk most Japanese men hate to hear, which is one of the reasons it is the kind of talk Mr. Itami puts forth.

For the past six years, Mr. Itami has made a meteoric career as Japan's cinematic enfant terrible, building his films around off-limits perceptions of Japanese society.

Starting in 1984 with his first film, "The Funeral," he has made all but a formula of shattered taboos, gloves-off social satire, black humor, plain silliness and slick visual and sound techniques, which he learned while in advertising.

"The Funeral" broke all the molds in the Japanese movie market, which is dominated by Hollywood megaproductions and by studios that rarely invest in anything but safe locally made formula flicks that aim no higher than the bubble-gum market.

By making a film based on his own commonplace personal experience -- going to a relative's funeral -- he discovered Japan's movie-going public includes a big share of people willing to laugh at their own foibles.

"I like to poke fun at the Japanese," Mr. Itami told Business Tokyo in a 1987 interview. "For one thing, no one else does it. The Japanese take themselves too seriously."

By that time, he had scored his biggest hits in Japan, two films about "A Taxing Woman," a tax-collection bureaucrat operating amid the large-scale corruption and penny-ante cheating found in Japanese business and politics.

He also had completed, in 1985, "Tampopo," a comedy set in a noodle shop, the film for which he is probably still best known in the United States.

Mr. Itami is a man who nurtures the aura of artist but does not shrink from suggesting that his art has a message.

To discuss "Ageman" with foreign correspondents, he arrived well into the screening with tousled hair, a black cape and a black crepe jacket with Chinese-style frog buttons.

"The most outstanding recent event reflecting the weakness of Japanese men," he declared, "was the Recruit scandal, in which men everyone regarded as big figures pushed responsibility for big crimes off on to their aides, their secretaries, even in the worst cases on to their wives."

The Recruit political money scandal, which dominated Japanese politics in much of 1988 and 1989, prematurely ended the prime ministry of Noburo Takeshita, forced the resignation of the head of the world's biggest corporation, and gravely weakened the governing Liberal Democratic Party.

What that scandal and "Ageman" have in common, Mr. Itami said, is an emphasis on four great weaknesses of Japanese men -- they "can't stand loneliness, can't make decisions alone, can't face anyone who disagrees with them and can't accept responsibility for their mistakes."

The film takes its title from the slang used in the world of its protagonist, a geisha who turns out to be an "ageman," a woman believed to bring luck and rapid career advancement to her lover.

The film derives its story line, its satirical bite and its moments of slapstick from Mr. Itami's vision of the men who pursue her, and the ways in which all of them -- even the banker who wants her for love rather than for luck and career advancement -- play out the weaknesses to which Japan's "fatherless" society condemns them.

Viewers familiar with "Tampopo" will find the same mind at work, and much of the same production slickness, but will not find the wildly unpredictable cuts to seemingly unrelated scenes and stories. In "Ageman," the scenes within the main story are improbable enough that Mr. Itami lets the film progress in a single chronological line.

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