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BIG IN JAPAN
Juzo Itami

Juzo ItamiIt could 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.


John Paul Catton

BIG IN JAPAN:

248/9: Toshiro Mifune
Actor
247: Shinji Nojima
Trendy-drama script-writer
246: Juzo Itami
Anti-yakuza director
245: Maneki neko
"Beckoning cats" bring luck
244: Chiyonofuji
The last great sumo champ
243: Johnny's Jimusho
Creating and promoting male stars
242: Hideki "Godzilla" Matsui
Yomiuri Giants center fielder
241: Tora-san
Actor Kiyoshi Atsumi
240: Misia
Female R&B singer
239: Puffy
Female folk-pop singing duo
238: Tetsuya Komuro
Dance music producer
237: Fujio Akatsuka
Manga pioneer
236: Daruma
Caricature of the Bodhidarma
234: Hello Kitty
Japan's reigning idol
233: Haruki Murakami
Author

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