A Bridge To Rediscovery
With Itami Juzo

BY STEPHEN SULOWAY
 
 

Itami Juzo has been in the public eye in Japan since 1960 as an actor, essayist, translator, magazine editor and TV host and reporter. His public presence has been more thoughtful, more provocative and more wide-ranging than most well-known personalities. Thematically, Itami is best known for his hobby of cooking and reporting on fine cuisine (especially French), and as one of the first to apply classical psychoanalytic thinking to Japanese society. Recently he has achieved new prominence as a film director. Of his first three films, two — “Ososhiki” (The Funeral) and “Marusa no onna” (A Taxing Woman) — were smash hits, standing almost alone as films of the 1980’s which broke through the rigid segmentation of Japanese audiences.

He is the son of Itami Mansaku, a respected film director and scenarist of the 1930’s and 40’s. the young Itami became a movie actor, appearing in, among many other films, “Nihon shunka ko” (A Treatise on Japanese Bawdy Songs) directed by Oshima Nagisa in 1967; “Imoto” (My Sister, My Love) directed by Fujita Toshiya in 1974; and “Waghai we neko de aru” (I Am a Cat) directed by Ishikawa Kon in 1975. In 1983 Itami received supporting actor awards for his performances in “Kazoku gemu” (The Family Game) and “Sasameyuki” (The Makioka Sisters). He appeared in the English-language films “55 Days at Peking” (1963) and “Lord Jim” (1964). For a time, Itami devoted more energy to television than to films. He hosted and reported numerous documentaries, including service from 1961 as an unorthodox roving correspondent for the long-running series “Toku e yukitai” (Yearnings for Faraway Places).

After reentering the film world in the 1980’s, Itami was inspired to direct a film on funerals after the death of his own father-in-law. Since no studio was willing to deal directly with the subject, Itami produced “Ososhiki” independently. His trenchant yet lighthearted and sensual treatment of the death business, and of society in general, turned the Japanese film world on its head. He then indulged his passion for food (and for random Bunuelesque subplots) in a “ramen western,” “Tanpopo.” In 1987 “Marusa no onna,” in which the greedy operator of a real estate and love hotel empire is brought to justice by an intrepid tax inspectress, became required viewing for bureaucrats and businessmen, and a hit among many other Japanese as well. All three films star Itami’s wife, the actress Miyamoto Nobuko, and Yamazaki Tsutomu.

You were busy through the end of 1987, shooting and producing “Marusa 2” on a rather fast schedule. Now that is has opened, what are you working on?

Right now I’m most involved in producing a film by a young director named Kurosawa Kiyoshi. It’s a horror film. My wife has a leading role. I am the producer, and I’ll be involved in the actual filmmaking in an advisory capacity, but basically it’s his film. I want to help bring out his individual style.
 
 
 
This is the first time for you to produce a film with another director, isn’t it? What about you as director? Is there anything planned?

I’ve been looking over a lot of scripts. Whatever I decide on, it’s going to deal with the questions, what is Japanese culture? That’s the issue right now, as far as I’m concerned. Japan is being pushed out onto the world stage and the communication gap is obvious. I want to make a film about it.

Many Japanese believe that the things they like, including their movies, can’t be fully appreciated by foreigners. Do you think Japanese cinema will ever be able to reach a broad international audience?

Basically the Japanese are just talking to themselves. For Japanese film to become international will be a three-step process. First, there must be Westerners appearing in very Japanese movies. Then there must be Japanese acting in English in very Japanese movies. Then we go to the last step, which is Japanese acting in Japanese movies that appeal to wider audiences.

Do you intend to help get that process rolling?

I’ve been thinking about it for a few years now, and I believe this is a good time to start. To begin with, I’d like to try to put American and Japanese actors together, speaking English, in a film that is Japanese in style. That’s what I’m thinking about for my next film. Of course, I’m not completely sure of myself…making a film in English… (chuckle).

Your first two films have had some foreign distribution. When you were making them, did you have international audiences in mind?

Not really. I did “The Funeral” in Japanese for a Japanese audience. Later it went abroad, and some audiences could enjoy it because funerals happen everywhere, even though the rituals are different in each culture. When I watched the film at Cannes, the audience laughed at all the same places as the Japanese audiences, except they laughed through the entire sex scene, while the Japanese didn’t laugh at all.

What about “Tanpopo?” in the U.S. it’s been doing unusually well for a foreign-language film, although it wasn’t very successful in Japan.

Yes, and it’s making the round now in England and France, too. The American critics love it. I hear it was included in the “Best 10” lists in many publications. Actually, I wasn’t that pleased with it. I liked the idea a lot. The script was good, but somehow it got bogged down in production. I was very dissatisfied with the camera work, in particular. I’d like to do it again, if possible.

I understand “Marusa no onna” will also be shown abroad. By the way, what led you to make a film about tax evasion?

Well, tax is money. I thought it was about time to take a look at the Japanese as people who have money. In the past, when Japan interacted with Western societies, the medium was human interaction; that’s how people dealt with one another. Nowadays Japan is communicating with the world, connecting with the world largely though the medium of money. Not through laws, or culture, or religion or anything like that. It’s just money. So to depict the Japanese of today I wanted to examine this aspect. Besides, everybody is familiar with taxes. From a business point of view it was a good way to make a successful movie.

 
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X4_vZBwPkuM</p></div> <p>
 

There are now fewer than two thousand movie theaters in Japan, and I understand that the aggregate business volume continues to decline. Of course the rise of television and video have a lot to do with this phenomenon, and today a large percentage of film “viewers” see their films in the form of video cassettes. This seems to be true even for a film as popular as “Marusa no onna” – video shop says they have it, but it’s always out. When you make a movie, do you ever stop to think that many people will be seeing it on a TV screen?

When I make a movie, I make it for myself, on the assumption that if I think it’s interesting, everyone else will think so, too. It’s not so easy, though, having no criteria besides my own. It doesn’t work to show a project to everyone else and get their opinions. I spent years working in television and in print media, where the object was to communicate with the great majority of the public. Now that I’m working in film, the audience is much smaller, about two or three million people. I think I understand how to communicate with this smaller group. I try to please myself. I’m the best audience, the most demanding audience.

Of course, films should be seen in theatres. It’s not jus that the video screen lacks the quality to convey cinematic beauty. There’s also the experience of being in a dark room, as if you’re alone, and that’s disappearing. That’s the direction the hardware is taking us. The critics should be writing about that loss, but they’re too busy tearing all the latest movies to piece. The theatres are definitely in a crisis. But it seems to me that proper films are making a comeback as a sort of cultural luxury. In any planned new development project, private or public, there’s always a theatre. In fact, the number of small theatres is growing. But cinema has had its heyday, ad that won’t come back.

High definition TV and other technical developments will probably improve the video medium. Actually, I don’t worry much about it. It’s a filmmaker and I’m sure the software will keep up with the hardware. But people should be encouraged to go out to theatres, because it’s such a nice thing to do.

If there’s another medium moving as quickly as video, it’s manga. Everything is going into comics these days—school textbooks, company histories and training manuals, even best-selling books. And over the past couple of decades the manga audience has shifted from kids toward adults, for both entertainment and educational comics. Do you think this implies a simplification of intellectual standards?

Not at all. On the contrary, I think manga have a positive effect. A lot of things that average people wouldn’t otherwise read are getting much more exposure as manga. Economics, psychoanalysis, people actually study these things with manga. It’s not that the words are disappearing, but rather that the graphics are added. After all, as long as there are still some words, it’s reading.

What about the huge popularity of manga with pornographic or violent themes?

As for the stereotypical images of men treating women violently, I wish we could get rid of them.

Of course this kind of problem exists in other countries as well.

Yes, but in Japan, so-called manly behavior is a very strong element of the culture. That’s because it’s a culture of weak men, and when men are weak they need to have an image of themselves as stronger than women, and it needs constant reinforcement. Look at Japanese advertising – men’s novels, men’s coffee, men’s beer, men’s cars, men’s everything until you’re sick of it. That’s the proof that men are weak, and it’s the same with the manga.

You’ve written several books of social commentary organized around the concept fo the family…

Japan is like one giant family. I’ve tended to view the society the way a psychoanalyst observes a family. The members of any family think their family’s conditions are normal. For example, if the husband beats his wife every day, or if the mother abuses her child, it may seem very strange to an outsider, but those inside the family think it’s natural. After all, that’s their reality. There’s no way for them to understand that their situation is abnormal, unless they can somehow step outside their household. This basic objectivity is what is missing in Japan. There is never an external view. Well, just recently perhaps Japan has stepped out of herself a bit, or at least that’s the way it looks from the inside…, but the real objectivity of viewing the inside form the outside isn’t there. In general, Japanese can’t understand themselves without experience the culture shock of leaving the country.

If you’re making a film, for example, you need to understand Japan, or people in general, form the inside as well as the outside. But it shouldn’t just be buried away in the film. The film is your tool , and while making the film, you should also be outside, but setting up some logical framework for viewing it, some theories. Japan needs to establish a standpoint and a language for viewing and reassessing its culture from the outside.

You seem to be one exception among the Japanese. Whether it’s TV documentaries about foreign countries, social criticism with a psychoanalytic bent, or a comic film about the previously “taboo” subject of funerals, for some time now you seem to have been capitalizing on a very objective stance toward Japan. How is it that you were able to step outside the family, so to speak?

The biggest influence on my thinking came in the days following Japan’s defeat in 1945. I was n the sixth grade. Everyone believed the Japanese were gods and the Americans were devils, and that every single Japanese should kill many Americans. When the war was lost, all of us kids make spears from bamboo, in order to kill the Americans. Then after a few weeks the Americans landed and everybody changed their opinion. Democracy was in, militarism was out, and MacArthur was a god. Everything was turned on its head, in what seemed like an instant. It was amazing how the values changed so completely. As a result of that, I could no longer believe in any one thing, any one value, any one standard of justice. I realized that in a way, one type of justice is pitted against another type of justice, and you can’t say that it’s good versus bad. And I formed an abiding belief that when all Japan comes together around a single value or belief, it is extremely dangerous. So when it comes to values, there are always a lot of different ones, arising from various cultures, and that’s exactly the way it should be. This is what I learned from the experience of 1945.

Also, when the American came with their flood of goods, their material culture, I was in Kyoto, which has not been bombed. Seeing those soldiers moving around Kyoto in their Jeeps was quite a culture shock for me.

Later I spent time abroad, and then I could really take measure of Japan. I would say that foreign cultures were less of a surprise to me than was the experience of seeing Japan from the outside. That was truly astonishing.

And what did you see?

The strongest characteristic of Japanese culture is that there is no father. Relations between people are very direct, and are patterned after the relationship of a baby to its mother. In the societies that share the Christian tradition, between one person and another there is an intermediate entity that is perceived as larger than the individuals, some external system. There are laws and contracts, there is God, there are principles, or whatever. At any rate, Westerners relate to each other within the context o some external consensual frame of reference. Japan doesn’t have this external element. People relate to each other one-to-one and if they fell good, then all is well. Japanese relationships don’t have a “third person,” but I think they should have. In the family context, the father should play the role of preventing the relationship between the child and the mother from becoming too rosy. Instead, Japanese have only two ideals, two models – the baby role and the mother role. The mother role is played by the big all-embracing organization which promotes self-denial. The other ideal is the child role, where everyone is encouraged to be pure, innocent, gentle and meek, or what is approvingly known as kawaii.

Do you think this pattern has remained the same since ancient times? some people believe that it has been significantly reinforces since the Meiji Restoration of the 19th century.

It comes from way back. In ancient Japan there must have been something that developed into a paternal mechanism appropriate to that society. Samurai society would have had its own paternal mechanism, and likewise the merchant (shonin) society. No society can develop without something t rein in the children, something to teach them to control their desires. What it was that played this role, that taught the children, was no the people themselves, but rather the conditions of life – poverty, the rigors of hard work, things like that. The harsh facts of life played the role of the father. However, in postwar Japan, with the extremely rapid economic growth, poverty and hard labor have suddenly disappeared. Now there is nothing at all to play the role of the father, and the basic operative factor in the society is, if it feels good, it’s fine.

I think that is the Japan of today. And I think it’s a very big problem. Japan is being thrust onto the world stage among societies which do have paternal mechanisms. In the other societies, the relationship between two parties is no just the feeling between the two of them, it’s triangular, with some sort of law, or fixed framework entering into the relationship. Now Japan is in the position of being forced to get along with those other societies, and the principle of good feelings is not going to work by itself. For now, Japan is using money as the third force, as the common ground between itself and foreign countries. Who know how long this can last? If Japan’s partners eventually come around to refusing to continue on this footing, then it will become necessary to develop some kind of technological, paternalistic mechanism for Japanese society. I think we’re being swept along toward such an era.

From this perspective, I am planning to make communication the theme of my net film. If we Japanese can see ourselves as having completely become that sort of society, and if we can recognize that from the point of view of their societies this is the situation that is visible, then maybe some sort of response will be forthcoming. I’m not talking about Japanese becoming like Europeans. I don’t think the peculiar characteristics of Japanese culture should ne lost. The thing is, though, that we don’t et have a good way to relate to European societies.

Sometimes a westerner living in Japan can’t help feeling that the Japanese people he knows are forfeiting so much freedom, so much individual enjoyment and fulfillment, that their lives are, in a sense, wasted.

That’s the way the Japanese like it. They’re more comfortable without a sense of self. A Japanese feels most secure when there is good feeling between himself and other people. They can’t rely on themselves as individuals. Although a Westerner might think that the freedom that goes with individuality is good, when a Japanese becomes an individual he is no longer Japanese. I agree with the philosopher Mori Yusei, who says that for the Japanese, there is no individuality, the smallest human unit is two people.

Getting back to your own activities in Japanese media, you are a lover of fine food, and you have turned your hobby of French-style cooking into the subject of many books, articles and TV programs. Recently you’ve been appearing in TV commercials for the giant food manufacturer, Ajinomoto. The commercials are interesting, but tell me, do you really think Ajinomoto mayonnaise is delicious?

Well, not really, although I don’t think it’s so bad either. I do those commercials because of the challenges presented by that medium. A TV commercial has a lot of constraints. Working within those limits is the job. After I agree to do it, I figure out how we should get the message across. They leave it up to me. And just because the constraints are so strong, I try to figure out some sneaky way to do exactly what I would like to do, and to make it enjoyable for the audience. My message is that, even within all the limitations, a person can do just what he wants to do. I like commercial work very much. It’s interesting to have a lot of constraints. You find that on TV, in the weather forecast, for example. If you can be free in a tight situation like that, then your freedom really shows.

You’ve been a well-known actor, writer and TV host for more than 25 years, bit in the past few years, with your phenomenal success as a film director, you could be said to have become an influential force in Japanese society. For example, you turned a little-known piece of bureaucratic slang – marusa – into a household word virtually overnight. In other words, you seem to have some power. What do you want to do with it?

Based on my experience at the end of the war, when I realized how important it is to have plural values, I want to work against unification behind a single value. Therefore in my films the basic theme is freedom. I want to show people freedom in various forms. Rather than just celebrating freedom, the heroes of m films are people who are struggling for it. And in making a film, about gangsters for example, the use of freewheeling conceptions and the inclusion in the film of the author’s personal touches, that’s one kind of freedom. In this way, freedom — human freedom — is always my theme. As a Japanese, I want to make the Japanese more free. At this point I’m working to provide all Japanese with the ability to look at Japan from outside the cage of Japanese culture. What Japan needs most is to rediscover itself from an external viewpoint. That is my goal.

Review of Tampopo: http://www.jonathanrosenbaum.com/?p=7766

Comments are closed.