Director's Suicide Perplexes Japanese

Acclaimed artist Juzo Itami has been called 'possibly the only true social satirist at work in movies today.'

Juzo Itami wasn't afraid to expose the activities of Japan's gangsters in his movies. He wasn't afraid to satirize the way the Japanese think about death or their penchant for tax evasion.

Some of his movies - notably "The Funeral" and "Tampopo" - were critical hits in the United States and other countries, where Itami was recognized as a funny and probing filmmaker. In Japan, some people didn't get the joke: In May 1992 five gangsters stopped the stylish director, held him down, and deliberately cut his face.

But there was something Itami could not face. Late in the evening of Dec. 20, drunk and wearing uncharacteristically sloppy clothes, he stepped off the roof of his eight-story Tokyo apartment building.

The apparent reason for his suicide appeared on newsstands Dec. 22: a magazine article describing a relationship with a younger woman, including three innocuous black-and-white photographs of the pair walking in public and conversing in a coffee shop.

Commentators on television and Japanese on the street are confounded: Why would one of Japan's rare iconoclasts not find the strength to endure bad publicity? Especially since he said he had nothing to hide?

The director, both in the magazine article and in a suicide note, denied any improprieties. He told the magazine he was interviewing the woman as part of his research for a film on office workers. Itami was married to his longtime collaborator, Nobuko Miyamoto. He left her image on a computer screen in his office when he died.

But it strikes people as odd that the creator of movies that used humor and satire to expose what Itami called the dark side of the Japanese condition should have resorted to a grimly conventional response to public embarrassment. In this century several prominent Japanese artists, including the writers Osamu Dazai, Yasunari Kawabata, and Yukio Mishima, have taken their own lives, sometimes to make a statement and sometimes in response to scandal.

Shizuo Natori, a trench coat-clad businessman on his way to work in Tokyo, stopped to explain his reaction to Itami's death. "It's the weakness of Japanese people that when they have to take responsibility they disappear or commit suicide," he says. "Even though I loved his movies, I don't like the fact that he killed himself."

Even the language Itami used in his note - shiomotte keppaku o shomei shimas or "in death I will prove my innocence" - sounded archaic and formal for a man seemingly unencumbered by many of the strictures that order Japanese society.

Film critic Yoshio Shirai describes Itami as a "free man" - a filmmaker who brought freshness and independence to a bureaucratic and rigid movie industry when he began directing in 1984.

"The Funeral," his first movie, exposed the tawdry, materialistic considerations that go into burying a relative. "A Taxing Woman" used tax evasion as a way of dramatizing people's obsession with money. A 1992 movie detailed how Japan's organized criminals extort money from small businesses.

Some of these movies were critical successes in the US, where in 1989 New York Times film critic Vincent Canby called him "possibly the only true social satirist at work in the movies today."

Mr. Shirai says Itami spoke the unspeakable in his film, but always in a lighthearted and comedic fashion that simultaneously caused laughter and introspection. He financed his movies himself, rather than work with huge studios known for formulaic comedies and monster movies.

"I don't understand why he had to commit suicide just because he was having an affair with a young woman," says Hiroko Ito, a middle-aged woman waiting for a friend outside Tokyo's busy Shibuya train station, making an assumption that many people here share.

"Committing suicide is regarded as something beautiful in Japanese culture - but it isn't. I don't know why a person like Itami killed himself. I think it's so unfair," she adds.

Shirai, the critic, says he got to know Itami fairly well. But he adds that the director was always reserved about his private life, and wonders whether the appearance of hypocrisy will undermine Itami's work.

"It seems he was a typical Japanese man who was so big and powerful in public, but actually very weak and dependent on his wife in private life," Shirai concludes. "People will wonder if what he said in his movies was all fake. I think the reputation of his movies will probably drop as a result of his death."

In recent years the director reportedly felt frustrated by a lack of new ideas. Indeed, critics say he did his best work in the 1980s and later lost his ability to turn his instinct for social commentary into good movies. Relying on many of the same actors and striking the same cinematic tone, his more recent movies have a familiarity that critics and audiences have found wanting.

Gregory Starr, the editor of the forthcoming Japanese edition of Premiere magazine, says there was an odd irony, possibly even some humor, in Itami's body being carried on Dec. 22 to his country house outside Tokyo, where he shot "The Funeral." But then Itami always exploited the short distance between comedy and tragedy. "What I find," he told an interviewer in 1988, "is that if I decide to examine something that is supposed to be funny, I discover some pathos in that, and if I try to deal with something sad, there's something sort of funny about it. It's never simply one or another."

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