Juzo Itami, the son of early Japanese film director Mansaku Itami, was originally a commercial artist that branched into acting, appearing in several films before taking up directing, after becoming tired of waiting for good acting roles to come his way. "A Taxing Woman" was made in 1987, following the success of his first film "The Funeral" in 1984, and 1986's "Tampopo". It went on to sweep the Japanese Academy Awards and become one of the top-grossing films in Japan that year. So popular was this film that Itami followed it up with a sequel, "A Taxing Woman Returns" the following year.
ATW carries on the tradition established in his first two films, that is, to take a mundane subject and spin a narrative around it in an unconventional manner. For example, "Tampopo" revolved around the role of food in Japanese life. In a series of stream-of-consciousness vignettes, the preparation and consumption of food were shown as ritual, philosophy, and religion. As for the main plot of widow Tampopo struggling to get her noodle business going, it was essentially a take on "The Seven Samurai", with a disparate group of strangers with special skills helping her save her restaurant.
In ATW, the subject matter is taxes. Taxes in Japan are high, with some marginal tax rates approaching 80%, and as a result, there is a lot of tax evasion. This fact of life necessitates the Japanese Revenue Service, which audits and carries out investigations in order to expose tax evasion. Ryoko Itakura (Nobuko Miyamoto, the director's wife and star of "The Funeral" and "Tampopo") is an auditor for the JRS. She knows every trick in the book and diligently nickels and dimes her victims to ensure that the government gets every yen it is entitled to. During her travels, a love hotel (hotels with rooms rented by the hour for... well, you know) catches her interest and she finds that the stated operating income is far below her own estimates based on the high rate of room turnover. She meets the owner of the hotel, Hideki Gondo, a gangster. As the story develops, we see these two resourceful characters as a perfect match: Ryoko's ability to sniff out hidden money is complemented by Hideki's ability to keep it hidden. They are ideal adversaries. Unfortunately, Hideki uses intimidation and guile to get Ryoko off his back. However, a few months later, Ryoko is then promoted to an inspector, and with greater resources and clout at her disposal, she sets her sights once again on Hideki's operation.
Itami contrasts the lengths at which people will go to avoid paying taxes with the lengths at which the JRS will go to make sure that their taxes are paid. A woman hides a safety deposit key in her bra, and when the overzealous JRS agents demand to stripsearch her, she removes all her clothing and lies on a bed, crying out "Women have another hiding place. Do you want to search it too?". Children are used to ferry money under the noses of JRS agents, with money hidden in their school bags. A pachinko operator gives a convincing performance by wailing loudly after Ryoko tells him that he owes over four million dollars in backtaxes. Hideki's mistress even uses lipstick containers as hiding places. As the net closes around Hideki's operation, we follow the JRS agents on their daily routine, using high-tech spy equipment and orchestrated schemes to find undeclared income, giving ATW a "Mission: Impossible" feel.
However, the problem with ATW is that Itami spends too much time detailing the intricacies of the tax world, to the point of boredom. Though this brings a level of authenticity to the film, it also grinds the story to a halt as we are burdened with scene after scene of pointless detail that does not propel the plot forward. As opposed to his previous work, "Tampopo", the humor in ATW is more subtle and satirical. The visual gags and outrageous situations portrayed in "Tampopo" (such as the classic grocery store pilferage chase scene) are nowhere to be found in ATW, which is unfortunate, since they could have breathed some life into the dry narrative.
But all is not lost. Despite the overly-long execution and restrained humor of this film, it still does shine for the genre-twisting gymnastics it accomplishes and avoidance of the typical melodramatic clichés. Furthermore, the open ending of the film forces you to reflect on the motivations and achievements of Ryoko and Hideki. The ending is also left open, leaving the viewer to speculate on the outcome. As Ryoko looks across a vast cityscape in an abandoned sports stadium, she is quietly contemplating her victory over Hideki. She should be overjoyed, but it is a paradoxically solemn moment for her. In a sense, the contrast and comparison between the tax collector and the tax evader comes to fruition-- these two characters, have been isolated by their respective obsessions. Hideki's life is in shambles and he is estranged from his family. Ryoko too is a stranger to her family-- though she is seen speaking with her son on the telephone, we never actually see them together or are given any indication that she has a life outside the JRS-- her weeks are filled with long days trying to outsmart the tax cheats. Is this perhaps what Ryoko is contemplating? As the credits fade out, you wait for Ryoko to provide some indication as to the results of her contemplation. But alas, it never comes, and the cat-and-mouse game between the tax-cheaters and the tax-collectors continues down below in the city.