In the 1980s, Juzo Itami reached a level of international fame that had not been accorded to any Japanese director since the 1960s. Itami's surprisingly direct satirical look at Japan's rigid society made him the darling of foreign critics and domestic audiences alike. His films also mark the re-emergence of Japanese films as an international presence, paving the way for later directors, such as Takeshi Kitano, Masayuki Suo, and Hiroyuki Kore-eda
Born Ikeuchi Yoshihiro, Itami was the son of noted samurai director Mansaku Itami. Itami took up his father's profession only after working as a bantamweight boxer, a band organizer, an essayist, a translator of such American authors as William Styron, a talk show host, and as an actor. He played a supporting role, credited as Ichizo Itami, in such American productions as Nicholas Ray's 55 Days at Peking (1963) and Lord Jim (1965); in Japan, he starred in such films as The Family Game (1984) and Kon Ichikawa's The Makioka Sisters (1985).
At the age of 50, Itami directed his first film, The Funeral (1985), a darkly funny yet surprisingly moving film satirizing Japanese culture and the way it buries its dead. With the idealized Japanese family seen in Yasujiro Ozu's works clearly in mind, Itami presents the death of a brothel-owning patriarch, his movie-actress daughter, and a corrupt Buddhist priest played by former Ozu heavy Chishu Ryu. Most of the old, formerly sacred traditions of the past have been either abridged for the sake of efficiency or commercialized to make a quick Yen. Itami's second film is widely considered to be his best and to be one of the finest Japanese films of the 1980s; Tampopo lampoons Japan's obsessive search for the proper way of doing mundane tasks, while exploring the subversive and erotic qualities of food. This film crafts a dizzying kaleidoscope of references from Shane (1953) to À Bout de Souffle (1960), from the literary works of Yukio Mishima to the later works of Luis Bunuel, into lighthearted satire about the perfect bowl of ramen noodles. His later films took on a decidedly more sociological slant. A Taxing Woman Returns exposes corrupt business dealings of land developers, while Minbo no Onna is essentially a textbook of how to rid oneself of the pandemic extortion at the hands of Japan's mafia. Itami's final film, Marutai no Onna, savages a religious cult that bears a strong resemblance to the Aum Shinrikyo, the doomsday cult responsible for the 1995 nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway system which killed 12 and injured over 5,000. His wife, Nobuko Miyamoto, has starred memorably in all of his films. Though his later films grew more violent and sour, all ten of his movies provoked laughter and later introspection.
Not everyone seemed willing to laugh at his jokes. In 1992, Itami was slashed in the face with a razor by three gangsters after the release of Minbo no Onna, leaving him with scars on his face that friends say he wore as a badge of honor. Apparently the Japanese mob, or yakuza, were more accustomed to being portrayed as the last bearers of samurai tradition, as opposed to the thuggish dullards seen in Itami's movie. In late 1997, Japan was shocked and saddened to hear that Juzo Itami had apparently committed suicide after a magazine was going to expose the world famous director as an adulterer. On his orders, Itami's service had none of the flowers or cash gifts that mark a traditional Japanese funeral.