A Taxing Woman (Juzo Itami, 1987) and A Taxing Woman’s Return (Juzo Itami, 1988)

The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents A Taxing Woman and A Taxing Woman’s Return.

criterion logoRyoko is Japan’s hardest working female tax inspector, a ruthlessly diligent investigator whose only match is Gondo, a “love hotel” owner and master tax evader.  Against a backdrop of stake-outs, searches, and a spectacular raid, this taxing woman and her clever prey test their respective skills of detection and deception, stirring their mutual sexual attraction.  Nobuko Miyamoto and Tsutomu Yamazaki give performances in the best tradition of romantic farce, resulting in a hit film for director Jûzô Itami and a darker, edgier sequel, A Taxing Woman’s Returns, that pits the title character against a religious cult leader and a complex conspiracy involving gangsters, politicians, and a prestigious construction project.

Disc Features:

  • New 2K digital restorations, with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray
  • Introduction with Nobuko Miyamoto, star of the films and wife of filmmaker Jûzô Itami
  • Masayuki Suo’s 108 and 110 minute documentaries on the making of A Taxing Woman and A Taxing Woman’s Return
  • New interview with Jake Adelstein on the films, the Japanese yakuza, and Japan’s National Tax Agency
  • Theatrical trailers and teasers
  • New English subtitle translation
  • PLUS: A booklet featuring a new essay by Jonathan Rosenbaum

Director Jûzô Itami claimed that his inspiration for A Taxing Woman came following the financial success of his debut film The Funeral (1984) and his corresponding leap to a much higher tax bracket.  Having already mastered universal truths like death in The Funeral and both sex and food in Tampopo (1985), the move to taxes for Itami’s next two features seems only natural.  The films assert that Japan has some of the highest tax rates in the world and that tax avoidance and evasion have become national pastimes in and of themselves, but Itami’s real interest is in dissecting the nature of greed and expressing his view on the changing significance of wealth.  He stated, “The whole value of money has changed in contemporary society.  Money used to be a means to an end – a way of getting something like a product or a symbol of the labor and sweat someone had to do to earn it.  Today money has become completely abstract.  It has a life of its own.  People want to make more money not to get more things, but to make more money – money for its own sake.”   His improbable heroes against this tide of greed and self-interest are the fearlessly dogged and bravely suspicious auditors and investigators of Japan’s National Tax Agency, protagonists made all the more unlikely by the prominence of a diminutive, freckled, and cow-licked female inspector named Ryôko Itakura (ably played yet again by Itami’s wife and muse, Nobuko Miyamoto).

A Taxing Woman introduces us to Ryôko as a tax auditor reassessing small business owners, catching them as they hide client receipts and live off of company inventory, when she notices the high-end cars parked around local “love hotels.”  After some quick math (number of rooms x price per visitexpected earnings), she determines that tax filings for these businesses reveal undeclared income and she begins a tireless investigation of the mob-connected hotels and their owner, an aged and gimpy gangster named Hideki Gondô (Tsutomu Yamazaki).  Ryôko fails to bring him to financial justice, but revives her case after she is promoted to tax inspector and Gondô’s former lover/accessory calls in an anonymous tip.  Through some tenacious investigation and some timely slapstick, Ryôko breaks the case on Gondô, discovering his cache of secret documents and bringing down the full pressure of the National Tax Agency upon him.

A Taxing Woman (and its sequel) is a decidedly different film from the other Itami works canvassed here previously.  At its heart, it is something of a procedural like Minbo, exploring how honest and determined people can surmount corruption, but A Taxing Woman relies much less on Nobuko Miyamoto to drive its crusade, is less obviously comical, and feels far less focused and far more ambivalent about its subject.  Its narrative is observed at a higher view (the film is divided into chapters organized around the progressing seasons, emphasizing the lengthy nature of Ryokô’s quest), keeping the viewer at arm’s length from dry and ornate tax rules and giving A Taxing Woman something of a picaresque quality, dropping in to take in the atmosphere and then picking up and carrying on.  Yet, it lacks the mischief and absurdity of Tampopo‘s episodic nature, its willingness to fully devote its attention to all manner of silly tangents.  Instead, A Taxing Woman is darker, both in look and spirit, and the film strongly evokes a neo-noir aesthetic with its ’80s angularity, its cool blues, and its use of natural, chiaroscuro lighting.  We were first introduced to A Taxing Woman as a global example of modern screwball comedy, and many reviewers and advertisements promote the film as a kind of uproarious portrait of unlikely attraction.  One should be careful about invoking the image of Tracy and Hepburn in discussions of A Taxing Woman.  There is a grudging respect between Ryokô and Gondô, particularly by Gondô who admires the tax official’s moxie, her sensitivity, her rapport with his son, and her devotion to her cause.  He even goes so far as to carry Ryokô’s handkerchief with him for months on end and openly asks her to leave her position and move in with him.  But while the film evokes the tradition of the sex farce, its representation is muted and tragic.  The lovers’ chase is full of action, gamesmanship, and jazz saxophone, but when Gondô’s tax evasion is exposed, his relationship with Ryokô ends and the slow grind of audits and assessments take over.  Ryokô fails to flip the script and reorient their romantic rivalry in a new format, instead moving on with the demands of her position and leaving Gondô heartbroken enough to give up his final secrets.  A Taxing Woman ends by aligning the inevitability of taxes with the doomed fatalism of noir, proving little room for happy endings and second chances once the wheels of fate and/or bureaucracy commence their unstoppable turns.

Itami’s tale of love (or at least admiration) between adversaries set against the highly cinematic world of tax enforcement proved a major success in Japan.  The film was a massive hit at the box office; swept the Japanese Academy Awards, taking home 8 prizes including Best Film, Actor, Actress, Director, Supporting Actress, Screenplay, Music, and Sound; and won Best Film, Actress, Supporting Actor, Director, and Screenplay at the Kinema Junpo Awards.  Quite naturally, A Taxing Woman spawned a sequel – A Taxing Woman’s Return.  Ryokô and her cohorts investigate a religious cult led by Teppei Onizawa (Rentarô Minuki) who is deeply embroiled in money laundering further to a complicated high-rise development that involves corrupt politicians and high-rolling gangsters.  A politician named Urushibara sheltered from the scandal of the first film reappears as an investigation subject in A Taxing Woman’s Return, connecting the two films.  The sequel focuses much more on the criminals than the crusaders, with none of the sympathy that A Taxing Woman offered to Gondô.  Its villains are far more villainous, and acts of intimidation, harassment, and even murder find their way onscreen.  A Taxing Woman’s Return offers no romantic subplot or professional learning curve for Ryokô.  The film is an even tougher, more adversarial procedural, and Itami seems to count on the audience taking pleasure in merely observing the reappearance of Nobuko Miyamoto onscreen, along with returns by Itami favourites like Yasuo Daichi, Masahiko Tsugawa, and Tetsurô Tanba.  A rookie investigator played by Toru Masuoka who is initially partnered with Ryokô offers some comedic counterpoint, but A Taxing Woman’s Return is overwhelmingly a downbeat cops and robbers story that relies on atmosphere and charisma to entertain, and it largely succeeds.  Audiences and critics seem to have agreed, as the film won a Japanese Academy Award for Editing, and received nominations for Actress, Director, and Screenplay.

A Taxing Woman PosterWe still love Jûzô Itami and still lament the unavailability of his films to North American audiences.  The Fox Lorber DVD of A Taxing Woman is long out of print (not to mention New Yorker Video’s long gone VHS cassette for A Taxing Woman’s Return).  The two films are among his works best known internationally, and they would make natural additions to the Criterion Collection, representing Itami’s stylishness and his playful approach to genre.  A substantial amount of promotion artwork and cover designs are out there for these films (and most of them are quite good), but we’re most taken by the theatrical poster for A Taxing Woman and that ¥5,000 bill featuring the smiling face of Gondô.  We’d like to see a Criterion release incorporate this image throughout its packaging, building and expanding upon it to represent the full cast of these films and various denominations of currency, tax forms, government identification, and sought-after seals.

Credits:  While we haven’t seen them, Masayuki Suo’s documentaries on the making of both films actually exist and are hopefully available to include in a Criterion edition of A Taxing Woman and A Taxing Woman’s Return.  We also return to the well with special features by yakuza expert Jake Adelstein and Itami fan and regular Criterion contributor Jonathan Rosenbaum, as their comments once again seem appropriate.

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