Juzo Itami reclaims his crown as Japan’s most entertaining director with “Supermarket Woman,” a saga of retail warfare and low-key love that keeps up a frantic pace for more than two hours, without sacrificing tenderness toward its key characters. Pic stands a much better chance of stocking offshore shelves than did Itami’s more esoteric recent outings.
Nobuko Miyamoto, the director’s leading lady, who brightened “Tampopo” and the “Taxing Woman” series, returns as Hanako, a widowed suburban housewife who bumps into Goro (Masahiko Tsugawa), whom she hasn’t seen since grade school, down at the local supermarket. She proceeds to excoriate everything wrong with the place — the wilted lettuce, the inflated prices, the lousy presentation — before he informs her that he owns the place.
Instead of being offended, “Honest” Goro, a lousy businessman who inherited the store from his parents, hires Hanako on the spot, relying on her in-store skills to turn the shop around.
Additional pressure comes from Bargains Galore, a mega-mart that opens right across the street. In shades of “Big Night,” the chain store’s smarmy owner makes nice with Goro, then does what he can to wipe him out. Meanwhile, the latter’s own family is undercutting his efforts, and the old-time male staff — “the pros,” as they’re known — are stealing meat and repackaging old goods, much to the dismay of the largely female part-time sales staff. By now the beleaguered boss, who’s a widower, is not only hooked on Hanako’s concept of top quality at low prices, but he’s smitten with Hanako herself, even if she blows off his mild advances as if they’re still in sixth grade.
Miyamoto wonderfully carries off the role’s tricky combination of childish playfulness and inarguable authority. Tsugawa, a stony Buster Keaton type who eventually cracks a smile, is just as good. Itami is an expert gauger of star chemistry, playing different temperaments against each other for just the right effect, as highlighted to hilarious effect in a seg when the middle-aged couple give it a hesitant go in a rented room.
Physical humor also scores, with a nighttime chase through the darkened store and even a manic food fight coming across as fresh. Lensing is clever, with an emphasis on bright, artificial-looking colors, and with smooth, tone-shifting edits goosing the action at every turn. Toshiyuki Honda’s lush score jumps from brassily retro lounge music to more introspective cello strains without inhibition (although Itami doesn’t lean on the music to keep pic’s energy up).
Within the farcical framework, helmer comments on declining standards in an increasingly mechanized society, and pic also scores subtle points by criticizing Japanese tendency toward go-along-to-get-along corruption.