On this day 25 years ago, Japan lost one of its most renowned and fearless movie directors. Juzo Itami was just 64 when he passed away on December 20, 1997. Officially his death was ruled a suicide, though many believe something more sinister was at play. Much has been written about that fateful day a quarter of a century ago and we will take a closer look at it as part of our latest article in the Spotlight series.
Before that, though, we are going to focus on the life and times of the revered auteur. A rebellious intellect, he worked a variety of jobs before beginning his acting career in 1960. He appeared in movies such as 55 Days at Peking and The Family Game, though it’s during his later years as a groundbreaking filmmaker for which he is most well-known thanks to flicks like The Funeral, Tampopo and Taxing Woman.
Filmmaking was in Itami’s blood. The only surprise was that he waited until his 50s to direct his first movie. He was born Yoshihiro Ikeuchi in Kyoto on May 15, 1933, and eventually took the stage name of his director and scriptwriter father Mansaku Itami (Yoshitoyo Ikeuchi), who was famed for the satirical way he portrayed Japan in many of his movies. While many of those films have since been lost, his most famous flick, Akanishi Kakita survived.
Itami would eventually go on to follow in his father’s footsteps, but not until 1984 when he made his feature-length directorial debut with The Funeral. He also inherited his dad’s anti-authoritarian attitude and was known to often question the rules at Matsuyama Higashi, the prestigious high school he attended. It was here where he met Kenzaburo Oe, a future Nobel laureate in literature, who would marry Itami’s sister and write about his brother-in-law in his 1995 book A Healing Family. He also covered his death in the 2000 novel, The Changeling.
As a student, Itami was clearly gifted but lacked discipline and failed to graduate from Matsuyama Higashi. He subsequently switched to a less reputable school before failing his entrance exam for the College of Engineering at Osaka University. Putting these disappointments behind him, he managed to forge a successful career for himself working as commercial designer, television reporter, magazine editor and essayist. At 26, he began to study acting at Butai Geijutsu Gakuin in Tokyo ahead of joining Daiei Film studio.
A Stellar Acting Career
After making his acting debut in Yoshio Inoue’s Mudcat of Ginza, Itami went on to appear in over 40 films and dramas. He worked with many of Japan’s most esteemed directors including Kon Ichikawa (Her Brother, Ten Dark Women and The Makioka Sisters), Nagisa Oshima (Sing a Song of Sex), Masahiro Shinoda (MacArthur’s Children), Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Sweet Home) and his close friend Shuji Terayama (Grass Labyrinth), whom Itami described as “a wild schizophrenic,” adding that “compared with him I am very commonsensical.”
Itami’s first appearance in an English-speaking film was as a Japanese colonel in the 1963 historical war drama 55 Days at Peking, starring Charlton Heston, Ava Gardner and David Niven. The movie proved stressful for director Nicholas Ray who walked off set before the end of filming. After witnessing that, Itami said he had “no desire whatsoever to direct a big-budget epic.” He appeared in another English-speaking film two years later as Waris in Richard Brooks’ British adventure flick Lord Jim alongside legendary actor Peter O’Toole.
In terms of acting, it’s the character Kosuke in Yoshimitsu Morita’s 1983 slapstick comedy Family Game for which Itami is most remembered. He excelled as the salaryman father who had little time for his family except for when he was barking orders at them. The role earned Itami a Best Supporting Actor nomination at the Japan Academy Awards. He missed out on that but did win in the same category at the Hochi Film Awards and the Yokohama Film Festival.
A Cherished Filmmaker
A year after Family Game, Itami released his first feature-length movie as a filmmaker. The Funeral is a witty, touching and at times risqué drama looking at how people here cope with the strict ceremonial events after the death of a family member. The daughter-in-law Chizuko was played by Itami’s wife Nobuko Miyamoto. Her father had passed away a year earlier and the three-day ritual, including the wake and funeral, inspired Itami to make the movie, which won five Japan Academy Awards, including Best Film and Best Director gongs.
His next film was not as big a hit domestically but did make a more significant impression on international audiences. Tampopo, named by Tokyo Weekender readers as the Japanese movie they’d most like to watch again and again, is described as a noodle western as a cowboy-like truck driver Goro (Tsutomu Yamazaki) rescues the damsel-in-distress figure Tampopo (Miyamoto) with her failing ramen business. Hollywood actor Edward Norton listed it in his top five films of all time, but said, “It’s hard to even quantify what’s great about this movie.”
Itami released eight more films before his death, the most famous of which was A Taxing Woman, (which also has a sequel), a comedy about a tax investigator (Miyamoto) pursuing crafty millionaire tax evader Hideki Gondo (Yamazaki). It won six Japan Academy Awards. Itami had another big success in 1992 with Minbo, a satirical comedy about the yakuza attempting and failing to strong-arm a hotel. The organized crime syndicate didn’t take kindly to how they were portrayed and got their revenge by attacking the popular director outside his home in Tokyo. Three knife-wielding men slashed him across his face, neck and shoulder.
Suicide or Something More Sinister?
During an eight-day stay in the hospital, Itami penned a letter to the public. “Yakuza must not be allowed to deprive us of our freedom through violence and intimidation, and this is the message of my movie,” he wrote. Five years later, rumors emerged that Itami was planning to make a movie about the Goto-gumi, a yakuza organization founded by Tadamasa Goto, and its relationship with the Japanese Buddhist religious movement, Soka Gakkai. According to journalist Jake Adelstein, the film would have caused a lot of problems for Goto had it been made.
Adelstein believes Itami was subsequently murdered by a Goto-gumi member. Allegedly, a source told him that the director was taken to the top of the building where he worked. With a gun pointed at his head, he was then reportedly given his orders. “You either jump or we’ll blow your brains out. If you jump you might live.” He didn’t. Itami was pronounced dead after leaping from the building’s eighth floor. Two days later, Flash magazine published an article about the filmmaker’s alleged affair with a 26-year-old woman. The suicide note left on his desk, written on a word processor, mentioned the affair and said taking his own life was the only way to clear his name.
Nobody in Itami’s family believed he would have killed himself over an affair, whether true or not. His death, though, was officially ruled a suicide. The most powerful Japanese filmmaker of his generation left us far too soon on that day in 1997. His movies, though, live on. While he enjoyed a successful career as an actor, it was Itami’s 13 years as a director and screenwriter that left the biggest impression on audiences. Building a reputation as Japan’s enfant terrible, his films were original, witty and never afraid to push boundaries. And that is why many of them are still held in high esteem today.