Friday, March 28, 2008

REVIEW: Minbo no Onna (Anti-Extortion Woman) - Juzo Itami (1992)

Reviewed by Chris MaGee

By the early 90’s director Juzo Itami had become famous not only in his home country but internationally for his satirical looks at Japanese culture. Pulling back the polite societal curtain he’d already exposed the inner cogs and wheels of the Japanese funeral, the gourmet boom, and tax evasion. In 1992, buoyed by one box office success after another Itami took on some really big fish. In “Minbo no Onna (Anti-Extortion Woman)” he skewered none other than the Japanese mafia, the yakuza, again to great success, but also at great personal risk.

The folks at the Hotel Europa are having a rough time. The management wants nothing more than to host international conferences and summits, but before the politicians and dignitaries can start mingling they have to address the problem of all the yakuza who regularly visit to shake down the hotel staff for money. So desperate are they to flush the mobsters out that Kobayashi, the hotel director appoints the hotel accountant, Suzuki, and the brand new bell hop, Wakasugi, as the new “special anti-yakuza aides”. Pummeled by the threats and fear tactics doled out by the yakuza and both men end up hiding under banquet tables. Poor Suzuki-san even starts pissing blood from the stress! There’s no way they can take on the yakuza on their own, so enter Mahira Inoue, attorney at law, played by Itami regular (and Mrs. Juzo Itami) Nobuko Miyamoto.

Unlike Miyamoto’s determined, but goofy, Chaplin-esque tax auditor in the “Taxing Woman” films Inoue is hard as nails and without fear. Her specialty is dealing with the extortion plots and intimidation that is the bread and butter of the yakuza. Soon after arriving at the Hotel Europa she’s going toe to toe with the gangsters, diffusing one con after another from cockroaches slipped into plates of lasagna to the old switcheroo with lost luggage. She also turns our cowering special aides into skilled negotiators by teaching them one key lesson: The yakuza will never follow through with their threats of violence (at least against non-yakuza) for the simple reason that it costs more to go to prison than the tens of thousands of yen they could extort from someone.

The lesson holds true, at least until Kobayashi makes the stupid move of placing a 20 million yen bet on nine holes of golf against, of all people, Iruichijima, a yakuza kingpin. Soon the hotel director finds himself owing the yakuza boss a billion yen and he and the hotel are mired in a battle the likes of which they or Inoue have ever seen before.

“Minbo no Onna” was nothing less than a rallying cry against the yakuza. Garnering seven nominations and two wins at the 1993 Japanese Academy Awards, including a nomination for best film, it thrust Itami into the media spotlight yet again, but soon the headlines wouldn’t be about box office takes, but violence. On May 22nd, 1992, shortly after the release of the film Itami was attacked and stabbed by a group of gangsters who were apparently not happy about the depiction of yakuza in “Minbo” as toothless blowhards. It was not only a major personal turning point for Itami, but a professional one as well. His films after “Minbo no Onna” didn’t live up to public expectations and the director committed suicide in December of 1997 after an alleged extra-marital affair was exposed in the press. The combination of the fact that extra-marital affairs are hardly uncommon amongst men in Japan and that Itami “jumped” from the roof of his building have led many to believe that the yakuza weren’t finished with him after the ’92 knife attack… but I suppose we will never know.

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