From director Juzo Itami (Tampopo, Minbo: The Gentle Art of Extortion) comes the fabulous Bubble-era tax evasion/enforcement comedy A Taxing Woman (1987), starring Nobuko Miyamoto (Sweet Home) as Ryoko Itakura, ace tax inspector, and Tsutomu Yamazaki (last seen on Kino 893 in a brilliant turn in Kurosawa’s Kagemusha as Takeda’s brother and original body double) as sleazy businessman Hideki Gondo.
The film tracks Itakura from humble tax auditor with almost supernatural detective skills to feared tax inspector of ‘marusa’, the Japanese National Tax Agency. She’s the kind of Sherlock Holmes-esque savant extremely popular in Japanese media, the kind that crops up more often in drama and anime than in film. Think Keigo Higashino’s Detective Galileo or House, M.D.’s titular Dr. House. Most of the fun of the film involves her cracking various money-hiding schemes – schemes involving fraudulent companies opened in the name of a dying man, multiple types of receipts issued so one set can be discarded to hide profits, laundering money through various enterprises and tricks, and traditional yakuza ploys like buying out an apartment then driving everyone else from the building by setting up a fake office there and scaring away other tenants. Miyamoto was married to Itami and starred in several of his films – including Sweet Home which he produced (predating Kino 893, you can find a partial review here and I discussed it on the This Gen Last Gen podcast here). She’s a delight as Itakura, and quite unlike most female characters in Japanese cinema.
The other side of the film focuses on Yamazaki’s Gondo, an affable-yet-sleazy business-cum-conman running a fairly legitimate set of businesses but carefully hiding his massive profits from the tax inspectors. The bulk of his revenue comes from a collection of love hotels, and the film’s tour of one high-tech (for 1987) example is particularly entertaining, taking in the themed rooms including a casino room and another with a Formula One race car bed. In fact, the film’s entire aesthetic is fairly interesting, depicting a time when Japan was riding high on the Bubble before the big crash of the 1990s. On the one hand, it’s fascinating to see how little some things have changed between 1987 and the late 2000s, early 2010s when I lived in Japan, on the other, there are definitively ‘80s touches like the taxidermied big cat in one of Gondo’s properties and the decidedly retro surveillance gear employed by the marusa inspectors.
The film’s depiction of yakuza is particularly fascinating. These are not the pseudo-chivalrous gangsters of 1960s cinema or even the violent thugs of the 1970s, but keizai yakuza, economic yakuza born of the excess of the 1980s, riding higher on fraud, property schemes, and extortion than they ever did on their earlier ventures. The scene where Ninagawa and his cronies, in league with Gondo, disrupt the tax audit office not by violent intimidation but through simply breaking social norms and strutting around with a megaphone is a standout example – Kaplan and Dubro’s Yakuza is an excellent book to read if you want more on this era of gangsters in particular.
Itami wound up angering the yakuza further in one of his later films, and his career was cut short by his alleged suicide or possible murder after their reaction to Minbo. With how good A Taxing Woman is, and the partnership between him and Miyamoto, it’s bittersweet that there are more of his films to look forward to, but only a tragically limited few.
A Taxing Woman / マルサの女 (Marusa no onna)
Director: Juzo Itami
Japanese Release Date: 7th February 1987
Version Watched: 127 min