Juzo Itami was a pioneering figure in the Japanese film industry. He was born in Kyoto, in 1933, to the name Yoshihiro Ikeuchi, later changing his name to Juzo Itami. Itami made a name for himself as a director and screenwriter in the 1980s & 90s. He was known for his innovative approach to filmmaking and his critical view of Japanese society. His films tackled controversial issues, which included social commentary on the thriving Yakuza criminal syndicate.
Itami’s 1992 Yakuza movie Minbo: The Gentle Art of Japanese Extortion (Also known as Minbo no Onna, The Anti-Extortion Woman, or The Gangster’s Moll), caused a stir within the Yakuza community. The film is a comedy that takes aim at tactics used by the Yakuza to extort money from innocent business owners. Itami portrayed the Yakuza as bumbling, ineffective gangsters who were easily outsmarted by savvy hotel staff. The film was considered a direct attack on the Yakuza and their practices. It’s widely believed to have earned the director the wrath of the notorious criminal organization.
The Yakuza’s Reaction to Minbo
Minbo was met with swift retribution from the Yakuza. Juzo Itami received death threats and was attacked by five members of the Goto-gumi; he was severely beaten and slashed on the face with a blade. In this same year (1992), the Anti-Boryokudan Act was enforced by the Japanese government. It’s believed that the attack on Itami was a catalyst for the eventual crackdown on Yakuza organizations as a whole.
Despite the threat of danger, Itami refused to back down. He continued to create movies, taking aim at various elements of Japanese society. He directed three more movies before his death.
Juzo Itami Death
On December 20th, 1997, Itami was found dead in a Tokyo parking lot he had fallen from the roof of his office building and died from the occurring injuries. After retrieving an apparent suicide note from his desk, which claimed he had been falsely accused of an affair, Tokyo police were quick to rule Itami’s death a suicide. However, many people, including members of Itami’s family, remain sceptical about the official verdict.
To this day, the exact circumstances of Itami’s death remain shrouded in mystery. Some believe that the Yakuza were behind his murder, while others accept the official cause of death. In 2008, a former member of the Goto-gumi (the same gang that assaulted Itami in 1992) told a reporter that they had staged Itami’s suicide. This reporter was Jake Adelstein, author of “Tokyo Vice” (which was adapted into a hit TV drama in 2022) and “The Last Yakuza: A Life in the Japanese Underworld”. Whatever the truth may be, the death of Juzo Itami remains one of the most controversial in Japanese movie history.