A Taxing Woman, program notes, Spring 2017

For the Yale Film Colloquium's Film Against Fascism series, we showed a series of films selected to comment on the Trump administration in ways both roundabout and direct. Below are the program notes for my choice, Itami Jūzō's A Taxing Woman (マルサの女, 1987).

Love. Sex. Death. Taxes. Most films keep the last to the shadows, where it shapes budgets and production—which city will give us tax breaks for filming there? oh, then, let’s film there—and never enters into the mind of the unsuspecting audience. Not so in Itami Jūzō’s A Taxing Woman (マルサの女, 1987) which transforms the stereotype of the boring tax investigator into an action hero detective—sniffing out lies, digging through trash, riding around on a great motorbike—and centers the question of tax payments (and nonpayments) with an examination of the absurd complexities of the tax system and the even more absurd lengths people will go to to cheat it. 

Itami Jūzō was a successful actor, the son of wartime director, screenwriter, and satirist Itami Mansaku; when he debuted as a director with 1984’s The Funeral, he displayed a knack for films which were steeped in the comedic gifts and referentiality of someone who knew the film world inside and out. The Funeral brought him wide acclaim from the Japanese press, winning Best Picture from the Japan Academy Prizes. His second film Tampopo, his best-known feature internationally, is a quite literal “ramen western” in which a woman (Miyamoto Nobuko, who stars as the tax investigator in A Taxing Woman and also happens to be Itami’s wife) struggles to learn the craft of ramen-making while local thugs try to bully her into closing; she is defended by a lone wanderer with a hidden past (Yamazaki Tsutomu, who returns to play the real estate baron in A Taxing Woman). The comedy skillfully combines genre play with an examination of food and sex, family and desire. A Taxing Woman, his follow-up feature, is less overtly genre-bending, but still displays Itami’s characteristic eccentric humor—a humor of discomfort, of characters behaving oddly, of a stilted awareness of the filmic world.

Applied to the world of money-making and money-counting, Itami’s humor functions as a satire of 1980s Japan, obsessed with its own economic prowess and detached from the real responsibilities of economic success. In the midst of the 1980s economic boom, Japan experienced an unprecedented (and, it turns out, soon-to-end) period of high growth, leading to a proliferation of buildings and businesses which would vanish with the burst of the bubble in the early 1990s. (If you recall the abandoned amusement park/hot springs space in Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, which becomes a home for spirits and gods, those are one such version of post-bubble ruins.) Love hotels, the official business of Gondō in A Taxing Woman, similarly boom over the course of the 1980s, developing ostentatious gimmicks and elaborate facades, becoming the site of cultural exploration of sex and desire outside the traditional family home; they also increasingly become the target of police and tax bureau attention as businesses associated with sex and licentiousness. 

This conflict in A Taxing Woman plays out as a clash of eccentric characters: an enthusiastically aggressive lady tax investigator, who always gets her man (or her receipts, as is more often the case), versus a sleazy womanizing yet nonetheless compelling hotel mogul, as they become increasingly wrapped up in each other’s lives through the mechanism of the tax investigation. Don’t expect a romance, though—there’s no room for love in the life of A Taxing Woman.