MOVIE REVIEWS : Taking a Non-Taxing Look at Life in Japan : 'Marusa No Onna' is rich in craft, humor and awareness of what Juzo Itami's people are about.

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With "Tampopo" (1986), the movie that brought him some celebrity in the United States, Juzo Itami took the story of a student noodle-maker and turned it into a sensual and ticklish look at Japanese society. It's an excellent film, with all the small comic elements tuned just right to Itami's vision.

Itami followed "Tampopo" with "Marusa No Onna" ("A Taxing Woman") in 1987. It didn't do as well in this country, most likely because it lacks something of its predecessor's flavorful eccentricity.

It's a question of degrees, however, and small ones at that. "Marusa No Onna," being shown tonight as part of Saddleback College's foreign film series, is rich in craft, humor and awareness of what Japan and its people are about.

Like "Tampopo," the movie (which Itami wrote as well as directed) centers on a woman, Itami's primary cinematic obsession. Ryoko Itakura (Nobuko Miyamoto) is a recent divorcee with a young son. She works as a tax investigator.

Actually, saying she "works" is like saying Babe Ruth "played" baseball. Ryoko is a tax star, a diligent and inspired unraveler of the most complicated scams. She's a focused workaholic who doesn't see anything wrong with the term.

Hideki Gondo (Tsutomu Yamazaki), a suspicious real estate developer with an eye for the ladies, is involved in a big fraud scheme. It's natural that his and Ryoko's lives would intersect. Once Ryoko sets her unblinking eyes on Gondo and his records, "Marusa No Onna" becomes a clever and revealing war of personalities.

Itami enlivens everything by letting an attraction develop between these dissimilar people. The maneuver may be predictable, but it captures the essence of any screwball satire that uses romance as a cornerstone for entertainment.

"Marusa No Onna" does feel overly long at times--some details of Japanese life, especially the dedication to tax evasion that rivals our own, don't intrigue as much as Itami would like--but it's hard to tire of Miyamoto and Yamazaki's performances. Their chemistry crosses all international borders.

Juzo Itami's "Marusa No Onna" ("A Taxing Woman") will be shown tonight at 7 in Room 313 of the Science and Math Building at Saddleback College, 28000 Marguerite Parkway, Mission Viejo. Admission: free. Information: (714) 582-4788.

Saddleback College's Foreign Film Series

Tonight: 1987's "Marusa No Onna" ("A Taxing Woman") by Juzo Itami, about a tax investigator on the trail of corrupt real estate officials.

March 6: "Cyrano de Bergerac" (1989). Gerard Depardieu in the latest incarnation of Rostand's classic.

March 20: "Manner," a German comedy by Dorrit Dorrie.

April 10: "Open Doors" (1989) by Gianni Amelio, starring Gian Maria Volonte.

May 1: "Erendira" (1983) by Ruy Guerra, based on a section of Gabriel Garcia's Marquez's "One Hundred Years of Solitude."

All screenings: 7 p.m. in Room 313 of the Science and Math Building at Saddleback College, 28000 Marguerite Parkway, Mission Viejo. Admission: free. Information: (714) 582-4788.

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