A full review of Supermarket Woman by Juzo Itami
For some weeks now (even before the Big C verdict) I've alternated between A days and Z days. A days are when I've felt fairly good and chipper and basically normal. Z days are when I haven't. Yesterday was a definite Z day; I lay around for a while feeling morose and sorry for myself, then managed to muster enough effort to put on Supermarket Woman, one of my favorite movies by one of my favorite directors, Juzo Itami. I've written about Supermarket Woman here before, but re-watching it compelled me to totter over to my computer and write up a pretty long review of it. When I'd finished, I felt almost like it was an A day again.
I put the review on Amazon.com, but it's reproduced here with a couple of additional notes at the end just for you.
Review: Supermarket Woman
(reproduced from Amazon.com)
I know that most people will draw a parallel between Supermarket Woman and director Juzo Itami's best known work, Tampopo, since both feature food prominently. But that's really where the similarity ends. While Tampopo is about the joys of pure hedonism, Supermarket Woman is really about how products are sold to us, the consumers, and how we need to be savvy enough to not be taken in by the tactics and outright trickery of the more unscrupulous.
Itami's wife, Nobuko Miyamoto, who starred in all of his movies, plays Hanako, a widowed housewife who is also a super-savvy shopper. At the grand opening of a new supermarket Bargains Galore (the original Japanese name of the place is Yasuuri Daimao, which means Cheap Selling Demon King) she runs into a friend from elementary school, Goro. Goro runs a competing supermarket called Honest Goro (again, the original Japanese name of his place is Shojiki-ya, The Honest Store). Goro has been depressed and demoralized since his wife's untimely death, and the sad state of his store shows it. One thing leads to another, and Goro puts Hanako in charge of revamping his store. In the meantime, his store manager is stealthily spying for the Demon King's owner and....
Supermarket Woman was made in the mid 1990s, and does show its age in some places. But some things are still pertinent and fascinationg. The unscrupulous Demon King store uses bait-and-switch tactics, false labelling, trick lighting, and so much more to purposefully fool their customers into thinking their "super-cheap" products are a good deal. But The Honest Store at the start is not much better; their produce is wilted, the fresh meat and fish are not the freshest, the prepared goods and bentos (lunchboxes) are made with inferior or day-old ingredients. Despite the resistance of the two-timing store manager and the entrenched "pros" in the back (the butcher, the fishmonger etc) Hanako gradually manages to change things around, relying on her housewife's savvy. The point is made again and again that as far as supermarket shopping is concerned, moms and housewives are the ones making the purchasing decisions, and they know best, rather than the "pros".
Another reviewer stated that Juzo Itami was a 'feel-good' movie director. I would respectfully disagree. All of his movies to some degree took a hard, cynical look at various aspects of Japanese society and skewered them subtly but brutally, be it the widespread practice - even acceptance - of tax evasion (A Taxing Woman, A Taxing Woman Returns), the hospital system (The Last Dance or The Seriously Ill) or funerals (The Funeral). One of his movies, Minbo no Onna skewered the yakuza, who took revenge by assaulting the director and injuring him seriously. A creator of feel-good movies does not get beaten up by the subjects of his work. (Some people in Japan even believe that Itami was killed by the yakuza, though the official verdict was that he committe suicide.)
Supermarket Woman is a much lighter look at at arguably a less 'heavy' subject than the ones I have mentioned, but nevertheless it does manage to put a critical fork into the grocery business. Perhaps to cover himself against lawsuits and such, the movie tellingly starts with a disclaimer that the movie has nothing to do with Ito Yokado and other major Japanese supermarket chains.
I may have made this sound like a boring, preachy movie, but on its surface it's an light hearted, action filled caper with plenty of good and bad guys, plus a sweet romance between the middle aged and widowed Goro and Hanako. Nobuko Miyamoto is in top form as usual playing the "everywoman". Near the end, there's one of the more exciting truck chases you'll see on film (involving an awesome decorated truck) that doesn't involve anyone or anything exploding.
Additional notes: Availability
I thought that the Supermarket Woman DVD used to be available available on Amazon, but it no longer seems to be. Maybe give them a nudge! It's also out of stock on Amazon Japan. Maybe Juzo Itami's brand of cynical humor doesn't play well in 2011....
Additional notes: The state of supermarkets in Japan today
Are current day Japanese supermarkets, or the food-retail world of Japan in general, any different from the ones depicted in Supermarket Woman? Certain practices such as red lighting on meat have been eliminated. But I think that if anything, it's gotten rather worse. At the time of the movie first appeared, a huge food contamination scandal involving the biggest dairy producer in the country was fresh in people's minds. Since then the number of intentional food contaimination scandals seem to have increased. The continuing recession - and more than that, the feeling of being in a continuous recession - has made the 'if it's cheap it's good' kind of mentality even more prevalent. Big supermarkets like Ito Yokado (who is owned by the same company that owns the 7-11 conbini (convenience store) chain) and Aeson/Jusco are beautiful, clean places selling impeccable looking products. But look closely, and there are plenty of 'cheap over quality' type of things for sale, such as dyed dried sakuraebi shrimp imported from China and sold for only 100 yen per bag (an undyed bag of domestic sakuraebi would cost perhaps 4 to 5 times that) or deep fried prepared foods that contain mostly filler. Meat is not mislabeled as it is by Bargains Galore (the Devil King) in Supermarket Woman - but supermarkets simply don't sell 'good' meat much anymore anyway. (For that you have to go to a department store food hall, or if you're lucky a good local butcher.)
As for the crazy, colorful in-your-face-selling tactics used by Bargains Galore, they pale in comparison to the very real Don Quijote (usually called Donki) chain of bargain/bulk stores, The 100 yen Daiso chain can be almost as colorful, but is a distant second to Donki. At Donki you can stock up on American-family-sized packs of potato chips or candy or soap, as well as cheap false eyelashes and cheerful makeup and throwaway clothing. Some people love Donki, but it gives me a headache.
But people flock to the big supermarkets and Donki and the 100 yen shops. Small, independent grocery stores still exist, as do some independendt butchers and greengrocers. But just as in many other countries, they are slowly disappearing. These days, Honest Goro may end up selling out to Bargains Galore after all.