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MOVIE REVIEW : Tax Woman’s Happy Return

Times Film Critic

“The Japanese love scandal, don’t they?” one of the persuasive Japanese villains purrs to the tabloid journalist in “A Taxing Woman’s Return” (at the Royal). “They’re all peeping Toms.” If you’ve read a single article about the wave of scandals sweeping Japan for at least the past six months, this angry, focused, funny film plays like the most lively backgrounder imaginable.

There is nothing more stimulating than a director furious about something and in complete control of his arsenal of attack. That would be Juzo Itami and his new work, a splendid film whose sense of outrage about high-level corruption in the Japanese social and political fabric fairly vibrates but in no way diminishes his film’s wit or liveliness. It may make Itami the most scathing social satirist working in film today.

Itami’s first “Taxing Woman” gave us a freckle-faced, utterly dedicated and fearless tax inspector, ex-housewife Ryoko Itakura (Nobuko Miyamoto, the director’s engaging wife). Working against convention, she became part of a task force on the trail of small-fish tax dodgers: pinball-parlor operators and adult-motel owners trying to hang on to unreported cash.

Now Ryoko is sturdily in place in her department and a little less the central focus. She is now, in a way, the film’s Miss Marple, pointing the way, uncovering the clues. Ryoko is also now sure enough of herself that when they give her a handsome young university grad assistant (Toru Masuoka), a sort of Tokyo Yalie who likes to drop references to “his school,” she tells him to just spit out the name, so they can all be impressed, then get on with things.

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Itami’s tone is sweepingly broad but darker this time. The tax investigators’ focus is Heaven’s Path, a bogus religious group and its leader, Teppei Onizawa (Rentaro Mikuni). A kicky sect, its mature Holy Matriarch (Haruko Kato) has a taste for full-length Russian sable coats, and its 70-year-old Chief Elder, Onizawa, blesses his cash flock with water that has just cascaded off the naked body of a nubile acolyte and been caught in golden bowls. (That gold is pure; you might not want to bet on the acolyte.)

It is the rabidly lecherous, callous Onizawa who commands our attention, and given our introduction to his vicious side and the life history that seems written there on his face, Itami’s ability to create empathy for him seems almost miraculous. Especially when he turns out to be a front for corrupt businessmen and Diet members.

As played by Mikuni, Onizawa has thick silver hair and a boxer’s blocky body. His face is almost rubble now, but in his Glen-plaid suit, worn with a silk scarf of his “religion” around his neck, he is devastating.

A man with samurai command and unrivaled influence with gangsters and senators alike, Onizawa still has nightly dreams of being crushed in a gray, fortress-like granite pit. Not even the tender attentions of his devoted young mistress (Mihoko Shibata), a secretary of the cult, soothe him.

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They don’t quiet his insatiable lust either. Before long, he’s seduced and made pregnant the 16-year-old schoolgirl Nana (Yoriko Doguchi) left in his hands by her father as payment for a debt. Then, well after we have written Onizawa off as exactly what he is, Itami shows us new facets to the man.

Nana’s baby is precious to him, his connection to immortality. And she, in turn, loves him. Full of tenderness for her, he offers “to buy you your grave,” literally and figuratively to offer his protection to her, lifelong. (Itami’s use of the passage of the seasons here, from spring to snow on the elaborate grave sites, is especially poignant.)

And, in the film’s most startling scene, as the tax officials interrogate him in a bleak room that seems too small for him, Onizawa turns on them furiously.

“We must open Tokyo as an international center,” he rages. “We must build more offices. Where? Government and business will never use eminent domain. Tokyo will be bypassed by Hong Kong and Seoul. Do you want Japan to become a second-rate power? Is that what you want?”

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Then, in what might be a moment out of “Raging Bull,” he bloodies himself in sheer berserk rage against the office walls.

It’s an extraordinary scene. It forces us to riffle wildly through what we thought we knew about this corrupt old man. Could this come from some genuine feeling of patriotism, misguided though it sounds? Is it craziness? Is it an act? Whatever it does indeed turn out to be, it is brilliant movie making and marvelous performance.

Don’t be misled; the rest of the film is by no means subtle. It has the barefaced trappings of melodrama, which Itami revels in: a ruby God’s eye that Sabu might have stolen in “The Thief of Bagdad”; the delivery of a supposedly real severed hand; heroines who discover secret passageways and are almost themselves discovered.

Some of Itami’s signature concerns from “Tampopo” turn up again: a mix of food and sex, gluttony and death. Crabs, we’re told, have feasted on a particularly luridly photographed body that has been in the water long before it is discovered by the schoolboys in the opening. Our gangsters are next seen, noisily sucking the meat from steaming crabs. (This corpse and later fleeting, appreciative moments of nudity make the film Times-rated Mature.) As he writes about circles of influence, Itami is not unaware of a larger cycle around all of us.

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Almost everyone is a little more knowing than we give them credit for. Onizawa’s wife indulges her fur-coat fetishes as her price for letting him bed the cult secretary. The gangsters, working hand-in-hand with the bankers, have an ace in the hole when dealing with a muckraking journalist. With the tax people on their trail, Onizawa’s church officials concoct a foolproof scheme to bury profits, a sort of geometric regression of donations downward, with proper receipts at every level. Onizawa himself runs up against a force more powerful than his own. And so do the honest, dogged tax investigators.

Against all this, Toshiyuki Honda’s jazz score works with almost a bouncy samba beat, orchestrated at the end to weave savage laughter in with the music. It gives the film’s conclusion its particularly tart bite.

With all he has had to work with in Japan, can you imagine Itami let loose on the political scene in America? Almost makes your mouth water, doesn’t it?

‘A TAXING WOMAN’S RETURN ‘

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A New Yorker Films release of an Itami Productions Inc. production. Writer, director Juzo Itami. Producers Yasushi Tamaoki, Seigo Hosogoe. Camera Yonezo Maeda. Editor Akira Suzuki. Music Toshiyuki Honda. Lighting Akio Katsura. Production design Shuji Nakamura. Sound Osamu Onodera. With Nobuko Miyamoto, Rentaro Mikuni, Toru Masuoka, Masahiko Tsugawa, Ryu Chishu, Mihoko Shibata, Yoriko Doguchi, Haruko Kato, Mansaku Fuwa.

Running time: 2 hours, 7 minutes.

Times-rated: Mature.


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