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Japanese Director Juzo Itami Recovering After Gangland-Style Stabbing at Home : Crime: Attack may have resulted from his latest film, which debunks mobsters. He calls on public to fight back.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a defiant letter written Monday from the hospital bed where he is recovering from a Mafia-style stabbing, film director Juzo Itami called on the Japanese public not to back down in the fight against gangsters.

Yakuza (gangsters) must not be allowed to deprive us of our freedom through violence and intimidation, and this is the message of my movie,” wrote Itami, one of Japan’s most popular filmmakers.

The 59-year-old director, whose works include “Tampopo,” “The Funeral” and “A Taxing Woman,” is recovering from emergency surgery after being slashed across the face, neck and shoulder in an attack by three men Friday evening.

No one has been arrested, but police said the attack may have been a retaliation for Itami’s latest movie, “Mimbo no Onna,” or “Mob Woman,” which opened May 16. The film portrays the yakuza as brutal bullies who try to extort money from a business. But the gangsters are eventually outsmarted by a tough-talking lawyer played by Itami’s wife, actress Nobuko Miyamoto.

The stabbing is being seen as an embarrassment--and a challenge--to the Japanese authorities. Using a new gang-busting law that became effective in March, they have launched a major campaign to crack down on yakuza groups that have until recently been tolerated by police, politicians and the public.

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“What worries me most about this incident is that people might think that the yakuza really are scary,” Itami wrote. “It would be a shame if people were disheartened just when the public is beginning to stand up against organized crime.”

Itami’s handwritten letter was read aloud to reporters by Yasushi Tamaoki, president of Itami Films Inc., who reported that Itami is able to sit up, eat and speak and is expected to make a full recovery.

“Because my lymphatic gland was badly cut, my face and hands are swollen,” the director wrote, adding that he looked like a boxer after a match. “But this is only temporary and is nothing to worry about.”

Itami thanked all of those who had “raised their voices in anger” on his behalf. Though he avoided a direct accusation, Itami made it clear he holds the yakuza responsible for his attack.

“I don’t know who the criminal is, but I interpret this as a flagrant challenge to human freedom,” he wrote, asking the public to join him in fighting such intimidation.

A spokesman for Itami’s neighborhood police station said the director had not been threatened before the attack but that since the movie opened, police had been patrolling past Itami’s home once an hour as a precaution. And in a recent interview, Itami had said he was advised by local police what to do in an emergency.

“I don’t think anything will happen,” Itami had said in the interview with Weekly Yomiuri magazine.

But he was wrong. About 8:45 p.m. Friday, Itami had just parked his car in his garage and was reaching into the back seat to retrieve some possessions when he was assaulted from behind by three young men. He told police that two of the dark-clothed suspects held him while the third reached around his neck as though to slit his throat.

Itami said he managed to get away from the men and saw them flee in a black car. He staggered into his home covered with blood and told his wife to stay calm and call an ambulance, she reported.

Police are trying to trace the getaway car but said they had no suspects as of Monday. Hakaru Hirose, head of the organized crime unit of the National Police Agency, called the attack “an unforgivably barbarous act.” Hirose said there is a “serious possibility” that the attack was inspired by Itami’s movie and pledged to protect the cast and others associated with the film.

Meanwhile, an investigative reporter who was himself the victim of a gangland-style slashing two years ago said the stylized attack was without a doubt the work of the yakuza .

Author Atsushi Mizoguchi was stabbed in the back in August, 1990, after refusing a demand by the Yamaguchi-gumi yakuza to withdraw an unflattering book about the gang from publication. Mizoguchi said Monday that police had traced a car from his Tokyo home to a gang office in Osaka but were not able to make an arrest.

But the past two years have brought scandal after scandal to the yakuza and their henchmen. The gangs have infiltrated legitimate businesses, won financing from the nation’s top securities firms and caused the collapse of Japan’s third-largest trucking company in a giant loan swindle.

The public dander is up. Now, having won passage of the gang-suppression law, the police will face higher expectations that they solve the Itami case, Mizoguchi said.

Mizoguchi, who has seen “Mob Woman,” which has been playing to packed theaters across Japan, said he believes the movie dialogue may have been interpreted by the yakuza as a challenge.

In the movie, the lawyer played by Miyamoto tells frightened victims that the goal of yakuza is to make money. But since the gangsters know that using violence only brings unwanted police scrutiny, she said, they tend to rely on empty threats, which can be ignored.

This may have been seen by the gang as an out-and-out dare, Mizoguchi said.


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