Sunday, October 3, 2010

REVIEW: Supermarket Woman

スーパーの女 (Supa no Onna)

Released: 1996

Juzo Itami

Nobuko Miyamoto
Masahiko Tsugawa
Sen Yano
Naomasa Musaka
Tatsuhide Takahashi

Running time: 127 min.

Reviewed by Eric Evans

“Supa no Onna” is a well-cast, well-made bad movie. It plays like an imitation of Juzo Itami, a knockoff mimicking the filmmaker’s signature characterization and excess but pulling back enough to avoid upsetting anyone. That it was nominated for multiple Japanese Academy Awards is baffling.

Some 10 years after the astonishing 1-2-3 punch of “The Funeral”, “Tampopo”, and “A Taxing Woman”, I suppose Itami was running out of steam; In terms of technical skill he was still undoubtedly one of Japan’s sharpest-skilled commercial directors, but the charm and audaciousness of his early success was clearly diminished. Itami’s wife, muse, and leading lady Nobuko Miyamoto powers “Supa” with some of the energy she brought to all of her roles in his films, but what she’s given here simply isn’t workable. What can she do with a film that sets her up as a dynamo of supermarketing acumen then stuffs her in the back of a truck, reduced to a hostage, for an ill-conceived near-finale chase scene? Those five screen minutes of chase drag like 20, and all for what—an admittedly cute but minor gag afterward? For a filmmaker like Itami who made his name making movies with wit and nerve, “Supa no Onna” is the cinematic equivalent of throwing up your hands and saying “Fuck it, I’ll just make a movie the crowds will like.” It doesn’t refrain enough to have dramatic heft and it doesn’t push boundaries enough to transcend genre as, say, “Tampopo” did. Unfair to constantly compare a filmmaker’s newer work with such an idiosyncratic success perhaps, but Itami showed such consistency early on that it’s fair to wonder what happened. Next to the clockwork marvels that were his early films, sweeping up audiences in laughter and intrigue, “Supa no Onna” is a lurching homunculus that periodically grabs at you and takes you just so far before dropping you again until the next good bit comes along.

Which is not to say it’s all bad, or that what constitutes bad for Itami isn’t better than half of the other movies out there. Miyamoto, as widow Hanako, has genuine chemistry with childhood friend Goro (Masahiko Tsugawa, playing his specialty—a lovable dullard). Some of it, such as the dance routine they did as kids that they remember and reprise multiple times, is forced. But the groping scenes, and especially an awkward will-they-or-won’t-they episode at a love hotel, tell the viewer more about these two characters than any of their dialogue. And what dialog: Hanako’s “Norma Rae” moment is cookiecutter and bland, neither a satirical stab at these movie staples nor a bold effort to exceed them, and most of the men in the movie are stereotypes of stiff, old-fashioned Japanese who cannot imagine that a woman—a woman!—would dare to tell them how to do their jobs. Shiro Ito plays a cardboard cutout of a villain who all but twirls his mustache as he brazenly tells his staff to lie to customers and cheat them out of every cent. Before you imagine that this is a satire or examination of Japanese mores, it’s not. These characters are just lazily shorthanded.

Plotwise the film is still timely: A big-box style supermarket has just opened across the street from Honest Goro’s neighborhood supermarket, and their heavily discounted items and constant sales are threatening to put Goro out of business. (Any real-world commentary concerning the neighborhood takeovers by such chains as Wal-Mart and Jusco is defused before the film begins in a disclaimer that more or less excuses those stores from discussion, which I took as a bad sign; a film shouldn’t declaw itself before the credits roll.) A chance encounter with grammar-school chum Hanako might kill two birds with one stone: she’s age-appropriate and single, so she might be able to fill the gap left by his wife who passed away some years before, and she has an uncanny sense for how to improve Honest Goro’s to attract shoppers despite the competition. He offers her a job and she sets out to turn the place around, starting with the basics of customer service and ending with more or less revamping the entire operation top to bottom in away which is explained as common sense yet plays as heartless capitalism. She and Goro sort of fall in love, but the way she smilingly Gordon Gekkos several highly trained professionals out of jobs in favor of cheaper part-time labor makes her a curious kind of heroine.

Despite its adherence to formula, the film is funny enough in bits that you forget what it isn’t. Miyamoto and Tsugawa have an ease onscreen that make their scenes outside of the mechanics of the plot sweet and remarkable. If only there were more of them. The supermarket nonsense is a non-starter, and every viewer knows more or less exactly what the end result will be. Had Itami relegated that part of the film to the background and brought the relationships to the fore, he really might have had something memorable. But short of inverting the ratio of supermarket forced hijinx to Hanako and Goro interaction, “Supa no Onna” is a piffle, a pleasant yet shallow diversion, an exercise in meeting lowered audience expectations. That’s fine for some directors, but Itami is supposed to be an explorer, a pioneer, not a tour guide. Not a concierge.

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