An ageman is a person who brings good luck to others, but not necessarily to herself. From this concept, Juzo Itami has produced a genuine screwball romantic comedy such as was popular in the American thirties and which I for one have not seen before in Japanese movies, where comedy seems to be comedy and romance romance and never the twain shall meet.
Nayoko, the ageman, has had very little luck for herself. Abandoned as a baby, she was raised by a poor family and then sent to a geisha house as soon as she finished grade school. There she grows into an attractive geisha who gets her first patron at age 18. He’s a 62 year old monk who doesn’t provide much in the way of sexual pleasure, but he suddenly starts rising in the clerical ranks, which he attributes to the luck she brings him. He sends her to secretarial school and when he dies leaves her a house. Some years later, she has worked her way up to the personal secretary of a banker whose business has prospered remarkably.
Rushing to work one morning, she thinks she is being groped on the train by Mondo, who was actually only trying to free his coat button from her shawl. Mondo, it turns out, is also an employee of the bank, but his engagement to a rich man’s daughter brings new money into the bank and he is not fired as he expected to be when he arrived in Nayoko’s waiting room. Nayoko is convinced to try a computer dating service, where she is matched to a piratical old man who buys and sells politicians and buys her the old geisha house she had been trained in. Mondo is dumped by his fiancée when she finds out about his three other women, and rather by accident finds himself with Nayoko. After they start their affair, he suddenly gets promoted, becomes a great success, and even revives a whole string of his earlier lovers. He is such a great success that the rich girl decides to come back, but after smelling her perfume on Mondo’s clothes, Nayoko throws him out. His luck collapses — among other crises on the same day, a depositor asks for a million yen in one-yen coins — and he is blamed for a gigantic loss at the bank used for a political bribe and is fired. They meet each other again and he decides to make a great success on his own, with her luck of course.
Anyone familiar with the great thirties “screwball” comedies will recognize the structure, starting with the “meet cute” through to his final realization that she is in fact the one for him, and even a little joke at the end after they have come together. Nevertheless, there is no indication that Itami was trying to make an homage to that genre. It is a thoroughly Japanese movie, from her geisha trade to the particular forms of political corruption examined. We see Nayoko’s geisha training in some detail and even see her perform a special “crossing the river” dance at the party to celebrate her coming deflowering by her patron, which involves a great deal of lifting her hem and which I had not seen in earlier geisha movies. When Nayoko goes to the monk, she is instructed in the proper duties of a mistress by the monk’s mother, including the admonition that he must always leave by midnight to go home to his wife. Nayoko holds to this instruction, sending her financier and Mondo home by midnight as well. Nayoko tells Mondo not to worry about success because, whatever happens, she can always support him, an attitude that we have seen Japanese wives, lovers, and mistresses take throughout decades of movies.
There are a number of laugh-out-loud visual jokes and a great deal of the sprightly activity that we saw in Itami’s Taxing Woman, probably accompanied by more verbal wit than is translated in subtitles. Nobuko Miyamoto would normally seem too old for the role, but then Jean Arthur was 43 in The More the Merrier, Irene Dunne 42 in My Favorite Wife, and Claudette Colbert 39 in Palm Beach Story and that never bothered anyone in the audience. Though now five years older than in Tampopo, Miyamoto amazingly seems cuter and she even has a nude scene that shows what great shape she is still in. It’s a bit hard to see Masahiko Tsugawa as such a successful Lothario that he can keep four women balanced at the same time, but then Eiji Funakoshi hardly looked like a man who could seduce ten women. Otherwise Tsugawa handles the role as well as anyone else we might imagine at the time, and his two previous movies with Miyamoto have made them an expertly responsive comedy team.
While I can see why Tampopo took the world by storm, so to speak, I can’t imagine why Ageman, though quite successful in Japan, did not have any noticeable foreign response and is now quite hard to find. But is is more than worth the effort.