JUZO ITAMI belongs to Japan's new breed of filmmakers. He loves to make people laugh, so all his movies have been comedies. He's also an expert at appealing to people of different backgrounds and nationalities: All his early pictures have found success in the United States as well as Japan, and his new one, ``A Taxing Woman's Return,'' seems to be following the same path. Above all, Mr. Itami likes to poke fun - mischievous fun - at social customs and foibles. His first picture, ``The Funeral,'' satirized the way people behave when other people die. ``Tampopo'' was a ``noodle western'' about a sort of samurai cook who gets involved in the Japanese restaurant business.
His last movie, ``A Taxing Woman,'' aimed its comic arrows at the most tempting target of all: money. Its heroine was a tax collector, and her enemies were tax dodgers who tried to hide the profits of the sleazy businesses they ran, from ``adult motels'' to pinball parlors.
According to New Yorker Pictures, the American distributor of Itami films, it was so popular in Japan that it made ``marusa,'' a once-obscure term for ``tax inspection bureau,'' into a household word.
In the sequel to this 1987 hit, our heroine is hunting even bigger game: frauds who have wormed their way into the worlds of big business, politics, and organized crime. Her main adversary is a phony evangelist (they have them in Japan, too) who earns extra money by forcing people out of their homes so high-priced office towers can be built on what used to be their living space.
The preacher's sins go in two directions: He pays off influential politicians, on one hand, and terrorizes helpless tenants on the other.
It's a neat racket, but not when the taxing woman gets on his trail, helped by her new yuppie assistant. Other characters include a young woman who's been given to the preacher as payment of a debt; a so-called ``holy matriarch'' who loves fur coats and jewelry; and a henchman named Shorty who's not long on stature or intelligence.
Like the original ``Taxing Woman,'' the sequel is stylishly filmed and very fast-moving. Itami is an expert movie technician, and he's also an expert at eliciting lively performances from his actors.
These include his wife, Nobuko Miyamoto, who stars in all his pictures and plays the taxing woman here; and the great Ryu Chishu, a legendary actor who's best known for his starring performances in a long list of classics by Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu.
On the downside, it's an unfortunate fact that Itami's films always go on too long - even ``Tampopo,'' his best picture, should have been trimmed a bit - so that we get tired of the fun long before it's ready to end.
``A Taxing Woman's Return'' falls into this trap, and some moviegoers may find its occasional sex scenes too strong for comfort, as well. But it certainly has a lot of energy, and its subject - the never-ending war between the government and the greedy - is always good for a few surprises. I won't be surprised if the taxing woman has more than one sequel to spring on us in fiscal years to come.