have been a story from one of his own movies. A famous and well-respected movie director
is found dead, apparently having fallen from the roof of his own office building. A
suicide letter blames media persecution, arising from tabloid stories of an alleged
extramarital affair. The police treat it as a possible homicide, as the director had
previously been attacked because of his crusading, anti-yakuza films and speeches.
Sadly, this was no movie, and it brought to a tragic end the life and career of Juzo
Itami, pronounced dead in a Minato-ku hospital on December 20, 1997.
He was born Yoshihiro Ikeuchi in 1935. Itami was a name passed on from his father, Mansaku
Itami, who was also a movie director, and quite a successful one at the time. Naturally
enough, Itami Yoshihiro changed his name to Juzo Itami and followed the family tradition,
coming of age in time to catch the first flowering of Japanese post-war cinema. His screen
acting debut was in 1960, and he appeared in many films, the most memorable being The
Family Game. He made his debut as a director with Ososhiki (The Funeral) in
1984, a film which put him on the map as a potent and original force in Japanese cinema.
It seemed strange that his debut was concerned with endings, and the Japanese attitude
towards death, but this only served to highlight the strong sense of irony which was to
run through all of his life' work.
Itami's films can be roughly divided into two categories. First, there are the slightly
surreal, multi-episodic looks at certain aspects of Japanese society. Ososhiki
concerned death, Tampopo (Dandelion) took a host of oddball characters on a quest
through the world of Japanese cuisine to find the perfect ramen, while Daibyonin
(A Serious Case) was a grim look at the treatment of cancer patients in Tokyo hospitals,
stemming from his own experiences after being hospitalized for serious injuries.
The second type of Itami's work concerned the struggle of individuals, especially women,
to protect their families and livelihoods in the face of overwhelming opposition. These
films included Marusa no Onna (A Taxing Woman) in 1991, Minbo no Onna
(Woman of the Law) in 1992, and Supa no Onna (Supermarket Woman) in 1995. His
wife, Nobuko Miyamoto, played the lead female role in these and, in fact, all of his
films-a practice not uncommon in the Japanese film world. It was Minbo no Onna that
brought him into direct conflict with the yakuza, because of its tough anti-gang message.
Several cinemas that screened it were the targets of vandalism and arson. Itami himself
was attacked outside his home by two knife-wielding assailants in 1992, leaving him with
permanent facial scars.
At the time of his death, he showed no sign of mellowing with age. His last directorial
work was a TV documentary for NHK-a hard-hitting expose of the illegal dumping of medical
waste, which he also narrated. It showed that his uncompromising approach to film-making,
and his talent for exposing corruption, were still at their peak-both things sorely needed
in modern Japan.