The Gentle Art of Japanese Extortion (1992)

JUZO ITAMI

Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB.5

Original Title: Minbô no onna

Japan, 1992. , . Screenplay by Jûzô Itami. Cinematography by . Produced by , . Music by . Production Design by . Film Editing by .

The outsized exuberance of Juzo Itami’s exciting and incorrigible plots led to life being stranger than fiction when his portrayal of good citizens fighting the evils of yakuza gangsters got him in personal trouble: not long after this film’s very successful release, Itami was attacked by men wielding knives who permanently scarred his face (it is believed by some that his suicide a few years later was also staged by the yakuza as retaliation).

It stars delivering another sparkling performance as a fearless lawyer who happily takes on the job of helping the employees of a classy hotel eject their more unsavoury customers, in the hopes that the establishment will win a bid to host an international political conference. The gangsters who do their business of intimidation and extortion in full view of the hotel’s restaurant and lobby patrons are rude, crass and disturbing, and only grow more belligerent when they are asked to leave or at least tone it down. Miyamoto’s arrival teaches the terrified staff how to hold their own ground against these bullies by teaching them how to finesse matters of the law into their negotiations, pointing out that these guys are all bark and no bite and wouldn’t actually risk getting arrested and thrown in jail for doing anything overtly criminal.

Her tactics work but it only gets the backs of the bad guys up, who increase their efforts to keep the hotel as their stomping ground, first by tricking the good-natured manager into a scheme that sees him being blackmailed for things he didn’t do, then by delaying the hotel’s construction project to expand its grounds with a bogus smear campaign. Miyamoto holds firm to her principles and keeps coming back with more fire power, the two opposing sides not backing down and always ready for another round in the ring.

The passion with which Itami has been pursuing his desire to uncover what he believes are the corrupt corners of his society has seen him leave behind a great deal of the sympathy and good-natured humour that marked his earlier films, going in for dedicated, sometimes too earnest messaging. The yakuza were likely offended by being portrayed not just as soullessly evil but as trashy brats, at the time they were selling themselves to the public as modern-day samurai, but had they paid closer attention to the film they’d realize that Itami was revealing them as the symptom of a disease, not its cause; it’s actually the unwillingness of the rest of the country to do anything about organizations that don’t respect law and order who really come under fire for criticism here.

The film comes to a satisfying end but getting there doesn’t involve enough clever or tricky situations, it’s too uncomplicated a plot to justify its length, but it is beautifully performed and the characters are unforgettable.

Toronto International Film Festival: 1992

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