Minbo: The Gentle Art of Japanese Extortion (Juzo Itami, 1992)

The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents Minbo: The Gentle Art of Japanese Extortion.

criterion logoThe upscale Hotel Europa wants to attract government meetings and international summits, but it is infested with gangsters who extort millions from it through cons, intimidation, and implied violence.  Unable to tolerate the exploitation any more, the Hotel hires feisty attorney Mahiru Inoue (Nobuko Miyamoto) to advise the hotel’s inexperienced anti-yakuza task force, made up of a lowly accountant (Yasuo Daichi) and a bell boy (Takehiro Murata), and expel the gangsters once and for all.  Jûzô Itami’s classic underdog story is a feel-good comedy gem and a brave statement against the semi-official corruption tolerated by the Japanese public, a message that would make the filmmaker himself a target of yakuza violence.

Disc Features:

  • New 2K digital restoration, with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray
  • Introduction by Nobuko Miyamoto, star of Minbo and wife of filmmaker Jûzô Itami
  • New interview with journalist Jake Adelstein on Minbo, the Japanese yakuza, and the death of Jûzô Itami
  • Rubber Band Pistol, Itami’s debut short film
  • Theatrical teasers and trailer
  • New English subtitle translation
  • PLUS:  A booklet featuring a new essay by Jonathan Rosenbaum

We return once again to the work of Jûzô Itami, turning our attention away from his most widely celebrated title, Tampopo (1992), to the film generally considered as being responsible for his premature death.  Minbo: The Gentle Art of Japanese Extortion (1985), also known as Minbo no onna and The Anti-Extortion Woman, carries forward Itami’s preoccupation with interrogating the complicated nature of Japanese culture but casts his lens this time on a group unappreciative to criticism or parody – the yakuza.  Days following the film’s theatrical release, Itami was attacked by gangsters near his home, having his face and neck sliced with knives.  Many accounts describe Itami being “slashed” by his assailants, but Itami is reported to have said, “They cut very slowly.  They took their time.  They could have killed me if they wanted to.”  Unbowed, Itami refused to be silenced and his attackers were convicted to 5 and 6 year prison sentences.  When Itami committed suicide in 1997 in an effort to demonstrate his innocence over a publicized extramarital affair, few believed it.  Most accounts suppose that his fall from his office building to the street below was due to yakuza members preventing him from completing another film about the Japanese mafia currently in development.  Jake Adelstein, an American journalist working in Japan, claims to have met a gangster who took credit for Itami’s death, the director having been given the choice between jumping and (maybe) surviving or being killed on the spot.  All this over a seemingly light comedy of manners about a hotel trying to create a respectable image.  Yet, as with most of Itami’s films, Minbo‘s humour belies its deeper social commentary and call to action.

Minbo is most frequently compared to Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954) for obvious reasons – both involve a beleaguered community taught to defend themselves against the criminals that exploit and harass them.  In the case of Minbo, it is the Europa, a high-end hotel that struggles with gangsters who bellow in their lobby, carouse in their rooms, and extort apology money through cons, bullying, and threatened violence.  When the Hotel fails to land a government summit due to the yakuza infestation, Suzuki (Yasuo Daichi), a lowly accountant, and Wakasugi (Takehiro Murata), a bell boy trained in sumo, are conscripted as its hard-working, but ineffective, anti-yakuza task force.  They find a solution in Mahiru Inoue (Itami’s wife and muse Nobuko Miyamoto), an attorney specializing in the yakuza’s extortion of private citizens, and she is hired by the Hotel.  Mahiru may be small in size, but she’s long on guts and is full of moxie.  While usually wearing a broad, endearing smile, Mahiru is not above fighting fire with fire, putting on yakuza-style airs to demonstrate her own cunning and assertiveness.  She finds initial success in diffusing the gangster’s efforts, besting them in each battle of wits they initiate and deflating their pumped up egos, but things become complicated and overtly dangerous when the general manager is framed in a sex scandal and blackmailed for millions.  Using everything Mahiru has taught them about the yakuza’s techniques, their own legal rights, and the strength of their collective bravery, it is up to all of the Hotel Europa’s staff to protect their business and community against these modern bandits.  It is said that in the post-war era, the Japanese redirected their culture of loyalty and obedience from feudal lords and agrarian communities to commercial employers and corporations.  Thus, Minbo can be seen as modern continuation of the ethic embodied in The Loyal 47 Ronin or Seven Samurai, with Mahiru fulfilling the role of the skilled and honourable samurai who bravely battles against seemingly insurmountable odds for what is right.

Itami has claimed that Japanese men have four great weaknesses – they “can’t stand loneliness, can’t make decisions alone, can’t face anyone who disagrees with them and can’t accept responsibility for their mistakes.”  Even worse, he also maintains they can’t laugh at themselves.  These criticisms seem to apply to both Minbo‘s gangsters and its Hotel staff.  As in most Itami films, the solution is found in a female figure who cultivates the independence and understanding necessary to make men out of the boys lost in their fatherless nation.  Mahiru sees through the pomp and swagger of the yakuza and reveals childish bullies not used to being told “no.”  It is not to say that the yakuza of Minbo are toothless in their threats as Mahiru initially informs Suzuki and Wakasugi.  While she may be right that the incurred legal costs and lost income of an imprisoned gangster is unaffordable to the yakuza when the target is a private citizen, violence is still within reach when a message needs to be sent or an impasse broken.  Some critics complain that Minbo is at times overlong or repetitive, but these criticisms miss the detail expressed in each yakuza encounter.  In these exchanges, Minbo quietly reveals details in plot and character.  Initial exchanges demonstrate how Japanese manners victimize the Europa, displays Mahiru’s expertise, and explore the gangsters’ true limits.  Middle sections reveal the growing confidence of the Hotel staff while Mahiru breaks her own rules for handling gangsters due to the growing seriousness of the disputes.  At times, we are even offered glimpses of Mahiru’s true fear for the yakuza as their hostilities escalate and the breaking point in their restraint is approached.  When true aggression and violence are inflicted, it ultimately has the effect of galvanizing the Hotel, rather than cowing it, and Minbo offers a uplifting dénouement and coda.  Itami was likely not so lucky, but the 1990s saw a harsher line taken against the yakuza in Japan and the evolution of laws increasingly designed to arm and protect the public, suggesting a legacy Itami might be proud of and could take some credit for advancing.

Minbo PosterTo the best of our knowledge, Minbo is one of Itami’s many films to have no digital release in North America.  Fans of the film have had to be satisfied with their Homevision video cassette.  A new, restored print of Minbo (or any of Itami’s films) would be a significant addition to Criterion’s library of Japanese films, particularly given the slim pickings of Japanese films post-1985.  While not his final film, Minbo is, in a sense, the film responsible for closing his film career and bookends nicely with Tampopo, the film that garnered the director global acclaim.  Minbo is not as narratively daring as Tampopo, but it is a highly entertaining slice of Japanese life anchored by Nobuko Miyamoto’s wonderfully likeable performance as the plucky, diminutive lawyer undeterred by gangster thuggery.

Occasionally, the Criterion Collection looks back on a film’s previous advertising and recasts it for a cover treatment of its own, modernizing its colours, lettering, or graphics to produce something already connected to the title and made consistent with the Collection’s established aesthetic.  We’re rather fond of this painted portrait for Minbo and trust that some blocky, red and white, English language text would make for an appealing cover treatment.

Credits:    There’s a lot of guesswork going on this edition.  We’re assuming that Miyamoto, who has given interviews on her husband’s work in the past, would have particular interest in Minbo given its singular place in Itami’s filmography and personal history.  We’re also assuming that Jonathan Rosenbaum is as much a fan of Itami generally as he is of Tampopo in particular.  Jake Adelstein has provided various interviews to Western media on the yakuza.  It would be interesting to see him extend his usual discussions on the Japanese mafia to its intersection with Itami and his personal knowledge of Minbo‘s reception and fallout.

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