Bloodshed, Firecrackers and Tears–The Best Japanese Movies Of The Heisei

By Kaori Shoji

Want to talk about movies?
From the vantage point of a film writer, the Heisei Era (January 8, 1989 to April 30, 2019) felt like a relationship that neither party had the courage to end. You know – the one where the occasional moments of joy are almost enough to blot out the periodic outbursts of blah. On the plus side, the collapse of the studio system and the rise of the PIA Film Festival’s indies support system enabled young directors to go from “mom, I think I’ll make movies for a living” to getting listed on imdb.com in an unprecedented short span of time.
On the minus side, budgets dried up as the economy sank into the mires of a 20-year recession. Japanese movies lost the clout points earned by the cinematic giants of old, like Akira Kurosawa and Kenji Mizoguchi. The films that came out were drastically reduced in scale. In the meantime, rival filmmakers in China and South Korea emigrated to Hollywood and stunned the world with grandiose, mythical stories funded by mega-budgets.

Still, we kept slingin’ that hammer because deep down in the recesses of our souls, we suspected that this is as good as it gets. Here’s a guide to take you through the most memorable movies (including the bad, the good and the ugly) that adorned the Heisei era – in random order.

1) Spirited Away『千と千尋の神隠し』2001
Directed by Hayao Miyazaki

顔無し (NoFace)

In many ways, Heisei belongs to Hayao Miyazaki, who at 78, remains Japanese anime’s biggest influencer. As co-founder of anime production company Studio Ghibli, Miyazaki’s works have always been gorgeous to look at but not always easy to understand; he has always avoided there feel-good formulaic plots favored by of Disney, designed to make everyone feel special and loved. Instead, the grand master of Nippon Anime has loftier plans. Part of it comes from his love of flying – Before WWII, Miyazaki’s family owned and operated a small aircrafts manufacturer and apparently, he was drawing airplanes before he could walk. What Japanese film critics describe as the “soar factor” is prevalent in almost every one of Miyazaki’s films, a sensation of flight, freedom and autonomy as the characters aim for the sky and struggle to gain control over their destinies. In Spirited Away,the soar factor is embodied by a flying dragon, and an impossibly high staircase that 10-year old protagonist Sen must navigate several times each day, if she is to survive and rescue her parents who have been changed into pigs. Spirited Away is a great piece of entertainment but it’s also classic Miyazaki – philosophical and stoic to the very last frame.

2) Minbo『ミンボーの女』1992
Directed by Juzo Itami

The Japanese Gentle Art of Extortion

In the west, Juzo Itami is best known for  Tampopo, a hilarious and sensual celebration of food. Minbo is far less light-hearted.

As the son of eminent prewar filmmaker Mansaku Itami, Juzo had always banked on his rich-kid image and a man-about-town snobbishness, both of which he deployed to full advantage in his films. But Minbo was a different breed. The story of a lawyer specializing in organized crime (played by Itami’s wife and leading lady Nobuko Miyamoto) hired to deal with yakuza (Japanese gangster) thugs, Minbo is dark and accusatory. The yakuza are depicted for what they are: childish, insecure bullies protected by clans interested only in profit (not honor, as most Japanese movies would have us believe). To prove his point, Itami swaps out Miyamoto’s trademark buoyancy for a rigid and sometimes leaden performance and the some of the action sequences seem over-the-top silly. Still, Minbo is probably Juzo Itami’s most important work, not least because it marks a crossroad in both his career and his life. After the release of Minbo, Itami was attacked by yakuza henchmen sent from the notorious Goto clan and got his face slashed up. Five years later, he jumped to his death from his office window. Whether Itami’s death was voluntary or enforced (by Goto’s men) remains an open mystery. 

3) The Shoplifters『万引き家族』2018
Directed by Hirokazu Koreeda

1) One Big Happy Family – clockwise from right, Mayu Matsuoka, Kirin Kiki, Lily Franky, Jyo Kairi, Miyu Sasaki and Sakura Ando. Title: The Shoplifters ©️2018 Fuji Television GAGA AOI Pro. Distributed by GAGA

One out of 7 children in Japan are living below the poverty line, with school lunches as their main source of nourishment. In Hirokazu Koreeda’s The Shoplifters, that number feels like more. Starring the always watchable Lily Franky and Sakura Ando as a down and out couple raising a 10 year old son in the ramshackle house of an elderly ‘obaachan (grandma),’  The Shoplifters won Koreeda the Palme D’Or at Cannes – the first ever for a Japanese director. The Abe Administration took offense at how Koreeda took the nation’s dirty linen and washed it in public so to speak. But The Shoplifters did wonderfully well at the box office, soaring to number 4 in the list of Japan’s highest grossing films of all time. One of the takeaways of this film is that in spite of their shoplifting, hand-to-mouth existence, the family is united by a fierce loyalty and is somehow, amazingly content – a rarity among Japan’s urban families mired in stress and societal pressure. A poignant and ultimately tragic film, The Shoplifters makes you want to see it again and again.

4) Ichi『殺し屋イチ』2001
Directed by Takashi Miike

Does Takashi Miike have nightmares and if so, what can they possibly look like? As the master portrayer of Japanese stab-and-slash violence, Miike is notorious for his unflinching dedication to drenching the screen in blood and gore. Ichi remains his most memorable work, not least because it stars the internationally respected Tadanobu Asano and the deadpan Nao Omori as rival yakuza henchmen ostensibly bent on revenging the death of their boss. The duo’s real objective however, turns out to be the high savored from killing as many human beings as possible, in the most gruesome of ways. The backdrop is Kabukicho, Shinjuku at the turn of the century, and Ichi’s glamorized violence makes the whole place look dangerously alluring. Present day Kabukicho has turned into a staid tourist trap with surveillance cameras placed in every nook and cranny, to nip violent incidents in the bud, apparently. No worries – even the yakuza go around with eyes glued to their phones.

5) Kamome Shokudo『かもめ食堂』2006
Directed by Naoko Ogigami

Heisei was an era in which many Japanese women categorically refused to get hitched and even more to give birth. The birth rate plummeted to an all-time low of 1.43. In 10 years, one out of five women (and one out of four men) are expected to live out their lives without ever having a partner which may strike the casual observer as a spectacularly tragic statistic. For director Naoko Ogigami however, the numbers are fodder for her particular genre of filmmaking. Kamome Shokudo is her breakthrough work that deal with a trio of single women who come together in Helsinki. One of them, Sachie (Satomi Kobayashi) runs a local diner and the other two (played by Hairi Katagiri and Masako Motai) decide to work there as well. The utter absence of emotional drama (but an abundance of great food) is incredibly healing as you realize that Japanese women may have more freedom and control over their lives than we thought. Best line: “Onigiri is the soul food of Japan.” 

6) Zan『斬』2018
Directed by Shinya Tsukamoto 

(C)SHINYA TSUKAMOTO/KAIJYU THEATER

Shinya Tsukamoto is a weird and wonderful film buff. For the entirety of the Heisei Era, he has acted, produced and directed his own films – always on a minuscule budget and a minimal number of staff. He even nabbed a part in Martin Scorsese’s Silence (for which he auditioned along with everyone else), prompting the great Scorsese to seek Tsukamoto out on set and shake his hand.  

Last year, Tsukamoto came out with Zan which he shot in less than a month and starred as a wandering samurai in the last days of the Edo Period. The film is brilliant for two reasons: 1) it highlights the samurai class as reluctant murderers who must cut people up to prove themselves, and 2) it shows up the brutally labor-intensive, muck raking poverty of late 19th century Japan. In the midst of the shit-logged ditch water however, you can almost glimpse that gem of hope. An unforgettable cinema experience. 

7) Tokyo Sonata『トウキョウソナタ』2008
Directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa

Years have passed since Kiyoshi Kurosawa replaced Akira as the pre-eminent Japanese filmmaker with that surname. Though Kurosawa’s main turf is horror, (Cure, anyone?) Tokyo Sonata is arguably his best and most accessible work, drawing an unexpectedly stunning performance from former pop idol Kyoko Koizumi.

Koizumi plays housewife Megumi, who is ambivalent about her stay-at-home existence in the burbs while having no idea how to break out of her shell. Her husband (Teruyuki Kagawa) is a sarariman (salaryman) who has recently been fired from his job, but pretends to go to work every morning in his suit and tie. The couples’ two reticent teenage sons have plans and desires of their own, of which their parents know nothing. Each of the family members seem to be dancing to a different tune, audible only to themselves until one day, their hidden urges come tumbling out. A haunting beautiful story that amply illustrates the dreariness of Japan’s two-decade long recession.

8) 北野武監督
HANA-BI 1997年

Say what you like about comedian and filmmaker Takeshi Kitano, but there’s no denying that for about 20 years in the Heisei period, the man was the closest thing Japan had to a living deity. The man has a violent streak, as demonstrated in the 1986 attack on the offices of papparazi rag “Friday” for which he was arrested and found guilty (but got off with a suspended sentence). In 1994, a motor bike accident that would have killed another man landed him in the hospital for 6 months but before he got out, he went on the air and cracked jokes about his horribly disfigured face. 

In the Heisei era, Kitano made some unforgettable movies but HANA-BI, (meaning ‘fireworks’) is a masterpiece. He directed, co-wrote and starred as Nishi, a cop who has just lost a young son. The tragedy causes Nishi’s life to spin out of control, as his wife (Kayoko Kishimoto) is hospitalized and his buddy Horibe (Ren Osugi) is shot by a perpetrator. Later, Nishi quits the police force to takes his wife on a trip, intending to kill her before putting a bullet in his own head.

Though Kitano has always worked in comedy, he is rarely verbose and HANA-BI is amazingly reticent. The absence of explanatory dialogue matches the extraordinarily lovely visuals, drenched in dark blue and gray tones as the story traces the graceful arc of Nishi’s downfall.

9) “Helter Skelter” 『ヘルタースケルター』2012
Directed by Mika Ninagawa

Mike Ninagawa may have been born with a silver spoon but her talent (and personal struggle) is achingly real. As the daughter of Japan’s foremost theater director Yukio Ninagawa, Mika’s life was both charmed and cursed. Dad’s glorious reputation preceded her everywhere she went so perhaps it was natural for her to choose photography and film instead of the stage. Helter Skelter is her second feature and stars the enfant terrible of the Japanese film industry Erika Sawajiri, as a nymphomaniac actress who lives in fear of losing her beauty. To prevent this from happening, the actress periodically goes under the knife, endangering not just her health but her sanity as well. Helter Skelter is audacious, brilliant and gorgeously shot – and an astute observation of fame and celebrity-dom in Japan’s youth-obsessed media industry.

10) Still the Water 『2つ目の窓』2014
Directed by Naomi Kawase

Naomi Kawase had a chaotic upbringing –her parents more or less abandoned her when she was a baby and the filmmaker was subsequently brought up by a relative. In interviews, Kawase has said she has tried to understand her life by making films about families and indeed, her works show a special fascination (or obsession) with the family dynamic. Still the Water feels especially intimate – a coming of age tale set in gorgeous Amami Oshima island off the coast of Kagoshima prefecture. Two teenagers (Junko Abe and Nijiro MurakamiI) struggle with their roots as their parents fumble about, trying to come to terms with their own identities and personal desires. Miyuki Kumagai plays the island ‘yuta’ (shaman) who must face her own imminent death by cancer, as her family resents her apparent powerlessness over her fate. A film that feels like an solitary, introverted vacation by the beach. 

The high price of cocaine in Japan (metaphorically & literally)

by Kaori Shoji

The March 12 arrest of Pierre Taki (real name: Masanori Taki) for possession and usage of cocaine sent shock waves through the Japanese media. Now that April and the new Reiwa era has kicked in, the hew and cry over Taki’s fiasco has died down somewhat. And he is out on bail. And of course, he did a 30 second bow, after his release to show he was very very contrite. And yes, there is someone out there who actually counts the length of an apology bow. By the end of the Reina era, the average “bow of apology” is expected to stretch to 75 seconds. 

Would you be surprised if this yakuza-ish character in the game was a coke-fiend? Would you be less surprised if the actor playing him was a coke-head?

The repercussions however, are far from over. Pierre Taki went from being the frontman of synthpop/techno band Denki Groove to one of the most visible actors in Japanese film and television. Taki was never a lead man but with his deadpan humor and weighty presence, he had carved out a John Malkovich-like position and as such, the man is not easily replaceable. At the time of his arrest Taki had been working on a number of TV dramas including NHK’s prestigious Sunday night series Idaten. NHK has announced that they have deleted all of Taki’s scenes including the ones already aired. Apparently, NHK is shooting everything again from scratch, tripling the workload for cast and crew members while other major networks scrambled to cancel Taki’s scenes and appearances. All of Taki’s product endorsements were pulled out. Sales of Sega’s video game Judgement Japan in which Taki appears as a key character, has been stopped. 

Judgement Japan was a spin-off of Sega’s popular yakuza games series (龍が如く in Japan) and coincidentally, the series also had another actor retroactively removed from the a game after allegations of cocaine use were published. Even in a game about yakuza, it’s not acceptable for the actors playing the characters, who use drugs, to actually use drugs. In a show of moral consternation, Denki Groove’s music was subsequently yanked off the Net. 

Adhering to the Japanese custom in such cases, Taki’s elderly father has appeared in the media to apologize for the wrongdoings of his 51-year old son. The rest of Taki’s family (his wife for instance) has not been seen. 

According to news reports, Taki’s arrest cost the Japanese media over 3 billion yen in losses. That bill will be sent to Taki and it remains to be seen how he’ll deal with it. 

In the meantime, Taki seems resigned to his fate. The prosecution has released part of his statement attesting to a coke habit going back 30 years. “When I was in my twenties, I was doing cocaine and marijuana whenever I went abroad. After that, the habit stuck with me,” Taki reportedly said. Rumor has it that Taki in the full-statement added “I’m not the only one,” which sounds ominous. 

Speculations abound as to who’s next in-line to be busted for drug use. Japan has a reputation of being relatively drug-free, with the exception of amphetamines known as “kakuseizai (覚せい剤)” which has been around since the 1920s. Kakuseizai was and continues to be, a picker-upper used by many segments of the populace—especially yakuza and media celebrities. Interestingly enough, the drug is considered relatively harmless compared to the big baddies: cocaine and heroin. It’s also easy to lay hands on some of it, provided you have the cash and the right friends with tattoos. 

Cliched as it sounds, most clubs in Roppongi have V.I.P. rooms where people like Taki can stroll in, sit down and start inhaling shabu—the other name for the drug—referring to the dry mouth and thirst that comes with usage, as well as the tendency of habitual use to suck the life out of the addict. Street prices are now fixed at 70,000 yen per 1 gram, which is a third of the price of cocaine. Five years ago, kakuseizai peaked at 90,000 yen to the gram but the word on the street is that the suppliers have come to outnumber the users. 

Japan’s notoriously slow (or thorough, depending on how you look at it) narcotics investigators usually take 18 or so months to gather the evidence for a viable case, and another few months before actually making an arrest. A media analyst who wishes to remain anonymous, said: “I know of a case where the narcotics team spent three years trying to nab the president of a major ‘talent’ agency. They made sure the evidence was air-tight, went in and made the arrest. After all that, the president went free on a suspended sentence. The next year, he was back in business.”

Indeed, kakuseizai can tarnish a public image but not irrevocably. Former baseball superstar Kazuhiro Kiyohara is a case in point. In 2016 he was arrested for using and possessing kakuseizai but after the hullabaloo died down, Kiyohara reinvented himself as a rehab guru. His heavily confessional self-help books continue to sell and he makes frequent appearances on comedy shows. He has turned his misfortune into a second fortune. 

The aforementioned analyst explained: “If a celebrity is going to slip, he or she better make sure they’re big enough to withstand the fall. The bigger the name, the more lenient the sentence and the faster the comeback. Everyone in the entertainment industry understands this, which is partially why it takes so long for prosecutors to make an arrest. Everyone crowds around the golden goose, to protect and nurture. A lot of peoples’ livelihoods depend on the survival of that goose. The goose called Pierre Taki kept going for 30 years.” 

So is getting caught using drugs a by-product of this super-aged society? It’s sure starting to sound like it. Mega -stars like Aska, (of the music duo Chage and Aska) was arrested for kakuseizai abuse twice, but in his sixties he’s back on stage, touring the archipelago as a one-man show. 

Pierre Taki may not be so lucky. Compared to kakuseizai, cocaine constitutes a serious offense and it’s much more difficult to buy in Japan. Taki has never cultivated a squeaky  clean image but the overall verdict is that it will take him some time to bounce back from this one. Other celebrities arrested for coke include Shintaro Katsu, an iconic actor from the Showa era whose booze and womanizing lifestyle was in perfect sync with his yakuza roles. In 1990, Katsu (then in his late 50s) was arrested in Hawaii for possession of cocaine which he hid in his underwear. He was promptly deported back to Japan and arrested in Narita Airport but he never admitted where he got the drug and seasoned his trial with bawdy jokes. Katsu’s career and health deteriorated after that but when he died 7 years later at the age of 65–11,000 fans turned up for his funeral. 

“I know this is a bad thing to say, but many in the entertainment industry tend to view cocaine as a glamor drug,” said the journalist. “Being arrested for kakuseizai is pretty much run of the mill but a coke habit suggests money, connections and status.”

If this is true, we’ll surely be seeing Pierre Taki again. He may need the money, after all. 

TRUTH is better than fiction. Nominate the Best Journalism in Japan For the True Story Award.

Thanks to the True Story Award, a new prize for written reportage, from 30 August to 1 September 2019, over 60 reporters from right around the world will come together in Bern, Switzerland. Nominate the best journalists and stories in Japan. 

 

Today, submissions open for the True Story Award, the first global award for reporters writing for newspapers, magazines and online publications. The prize recognises written reportage from all countries and in 12 of the world’s most widely spoken languages. The prize will be awarded to work that stands out through in-depth research, journalistic quality and societal relevance.

 

The prize seeks to motivate journalists from across the world and to support their work. In many places around the world, the loss of diverse and independent media coverage of events and developments is damaging the ability of the public to freely form critical opinions. Which makes it even more important to have courageous and innovative reporters – in all societies and countries. It’s for these reporters that the True Story Award has been created. To begin with, a jury representing 29 countries will nominate a total of 42 reporters. Following this process, an eight-person jury will determine the winners.

 

The nominees and selected members of the international jury will be invited to attend the prize ceremony in Bern, Switzerland. But it doesn’t end there. At a three-day festival, they will share stories about their work in various contexts around the globe. At some 50 public events, they will provide insights into the conditions under which their research was carried out, will discuss some of the obstacles and resistance they faced, tell stories, and provide the public with new persepectives on contemporary events. It will be the first festival of its kind in the German-speaking world. Apart from the award ceremony, entry to all events will be free.

 

The prize was conceived and launched by Reportagenmagazine, and the True Story Award and the accompanying festival will be carried out in close collaboration with Bern Welcome. The prize is funded by the newly founded True Story Award Foundation.

 

Please direct enquiries to:

Sabrina Jörg, Dvents Director, Bern Welcome, sabrina.joerg@bern.com, +41 (0)79 473 27 43

Daniel Puntas Bernet, Editor in Chief Reportagen, daniel.puntas (at) reportagen.com, +41 (0)79 662 54 47

Marcel Brülhart, Chairman of the Board, Bern Welcome, bruelhart (at) recht-governance.ch, +41 (0)79 359 59 66

 

 

 

Bern Welcome

Bern Welcomebrings together city marketing, tourism and local activities in the city of Bern. This merger is the first of its kind in Switzerland.

The organisations Bern Tourismand Bern Meetings & Eventsare both included under the umbrella of Bern Welcome AG, and share a joint strategic and operational structure.

Bern Welcomeis primarily funded by the city of Bern, the business network BERNcityand the associations Hotellerie Bern+Mittelland andGastroStadtBern.

 

 

Reportagen

Reportagenis an independent magazine for contemporary storytelling. Outstanding authors tell fascinating stories from around the world. Researched in the field, with the protagonists themselves, and off the beaten track. A new edition every second month. In a sleekly designed paperback and a digital format.Reportagenis available in bookstores and from newsagents, in the App Store and by subscription.

Abe-Japan’s Time Machine Back To The Nazi Era

Reviving Japan’s Imperial glory and rewriting history to exorcise Japan’s war atrocities has always been an Abe obsession. But teaching ‘Mein Kampf’ in the schools?  Modelling a new Japanese constitution after the Nazis?  Japan joins the roster of threatened democracies. (Originally published in May of 2017)

The recent article in The Daily Beast opens as follows: Imagine a world in which the Nazis and Imperial Japan won the second world war—that’s the premise of the critically acclaimed TV series The Man In The High Castle, which is science fiction. But as a matter of fact, the grandson of a war criminal, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, seems intent on turning that dark fantasy into something more like a reality TV show. The premiere is scheduled for 2020, and he’s drawing on some classics for the scenario: Mein Kampf recently was approved for Japanese classrooms, and the suggestively titled Hitler’s Election Strategy is popular with some members of the Abe Cabinet.

…..In the summer of 2013, Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Taro Aso, famous for his verbal gaffes declared in a speech to his political supporters, “Germany’s Weimar Constitution was changed into the Nazi Constitution before anyone knew. It was changed before anyone else noticed. Why don’t we learn from that method?”
Two of Abe’s Cabinet appointees were associated with Japan’s Nazi Party and several of his comrades wrote laudatory blurbs for a book called Hitler’s Election Strategy, published in 1994, and written by a member of Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). The book was banned after international criticism.

Comparisons with the Nazis are hard to brush off if your Cabinet members are looking up to them as role models…..

For the whole article please go read this below. Under the link we will be posting a few more things to consider, mostly in Japanese

Japan: Shinzo Abe’s Government Has a Thing About Hitler. It Likes Him.

Comments are welcome, trolling not so much.

If you’d like you understand how the nazis rose to power, the following article by Peter Ross Range is excellent. How Hitler Seized Power and Shocked His Opposition.

Hitler did exactly what he said he would do. And Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his Vice Prime Minister are doing exactly what they said they would do, change the constitution just like the Nazis did. And create the Imperial Japan that once ruled over the people without any democratic restraints or worries about “human rights”.

But Hitler surprised everyone by doing exactly what he had been preaching for more than a decade: turning Germany into an ethnically pure, nationalistically-driven economic machine for making Germany great again. And he thought he could do it fast.For that, Hitler had Hermann Göring and Joseph Goebbels. In 1933, they were not yet the monsters of history that they later became. But they were ambitious political operatives with a radical agenda and a charismatic leader. They acted with speed and force.The Abe Government Borrows From The Nazi Party↙

Here would be the modern day Japan rewrite of Mr. Range’s article:

But Abe surprised everyone by doing exactly what he had been preaching for many years: turning Japan into a Japanese first, Shinto-worshipping, Imperial and nationalistically-driven economic machine for making Japan great again. And he thought he could do it fast. For that, Abe had Cabinet Minister Suga, the right-wing Shinto cult,  Nippon Kaigi, and The Yomiuri Shimbun and a timid press core. In 2012,  they were not yet the monsters of history that they later became. But they were ambitious political operatives with a radical agenda and a charismatic leader. They acted with speed and force.

Below is a chart in Japanese of ways in which the LDP and Prime Minister Abe have stolen from the Nazi playbook. It’s not much of a surprise but the similarities are striking. Perhaps because the LDP really did learn from Hitler’s Election Strategy, a book written in 1994 by an LDP member, and blurbed with great praise by several past and present members of Prime Minister Abe’s Cabinet at the time it came out.

 

The Abe administration has several members who penned blurbs for “Hitler’s Election Strategy”. Abe also seems to be aping the Nazi political tactics.

 

 

Here are the key things Hitler did to consolidate power, as noted by, Mr. Range.

—let loose the police against Jews and Communists to a degree never seen before;

—won emergency powers to govern by decree following the incredibly well-timed February 27 arson against the Reichstag, Germany’s parliament building;

—begun the shutdown of dissent and diversity in German publishing and culture through a policy of Gleichschaltung, or forcing everybody onto the same page.

 

And here is what Prime Minister Abe and the Liberal Democratic Party are attempting to and have done

—let loose the police against dissenters, critics, and protests to a degree never seen before with the passing of the Conspiracy Laws this week (May 2017)

—win emergency powers to govern by decree in their new constitution as soon as they can find a suitable emergency (by 2020)

—continue the shutdown of dissent and diversity in Japan publishing and culture through a policy of Gleichschaltung, or forcing everybody onto the same page, passing a Special Secrets Act, and gradually crushing press freedom. (Japan was ranked #11 in the World Press Freedom Index in 2011 before Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took power. It is now #72).

Wiser men then myself said a few years ago that the much vaunted Abenomics was just a sexy smokescreen for Abe’s nationalist agenda–and like every great big lie, everyone has fallen for it. While the investors and true-believers of the world wait for the 4th arrow that will never come, Prime Minister Abe and his cronies are quietly getting Japan prepared for their vision of the 4th Reich.

Maybe it will be good for the economy.

 

 

 

The belligerent attitude of the Abe government to the United Nations resembles Imperial Japan ignoring international criticism for their actions in China.

 

6 murderers are paroled in a small Japanese town. Will they bring the place back to life or bring more death? See “The Scythian Lamb”

Rural depopulation is a serious problem in Japan, so much that for the past decade, media fiction has devoted an entire genre into telling its stories. Bankrupt shops with their shutters permanently closed, desolate mountain and sea landscapes, no one out on the streets but a handful of old people. These are both metaphors for, and the hard facts of, most Japanese rural areas. Regional governments have been desperate to bring in new residents and to this end, they’re offering stipends, free housing, even matchmaking parties – on the governments’ dime. Rumor has it that since the early nineties, rural towns have been recruiting parolees to become part of the local populace. This information cannot be verified. The people involved will never admit to such a program even existing. But it’s there, and “The Scythian Lamb” is a brilliant fable about what happens when this program kicks in (pun fully intended) on a sleepy little coastal town. A town where, “the people are kind and the seafood is delicious.”

© 2018『羊の木』製作委員会 ©山上たつひこ、いがらしみきお/講談社

With its slow burning violence and small town melodrama, “The Scythian Lamb” is mindful in many ways of “Fargo” (the TV series) but without the broad streak of snarkiness and splashy bloodletting. Most of all, the dystopian despair that make up much of “Fargo” (and like-minded others) is missing from “Scythian…”

This isn’t a spoiler but the ending is hopeful, even happy. The final scenes close on a rural town whose residents are marginally more joyous than they were last year and there is absolutely no mention of the violence that erupted briefly like fireworks, then disappeared into the night sky. However, the journey to the peaceful end is not easy.

Six ex-cons, all who had served time for murder and now on parole, are selected to live in a fictional seaside town called Uobuka (which means ‘fish deep’). One by one, they arrive – four men and two women between the ages of early 30s to mid-60s – and are given a welcome by the city hall worker Tsukisue (played with breezy finesse by Ryo Nishikido). They are allowed to live in the town, on the condition that they take jobs provided them by city hall, and that they stay for 10 years. In other words, they’ve exchanged a shorter prison sentence for another kind of penance. Already, one of them (Kazuki Kitamura), who represents Japan’s new breed of criminal, has started to complain that he will be “bored to death” here.

Tsukisue is still young, lithe and naive though his high school pal Sudo (Satoru Matsui) assures him that living out in the boonies ages everyone twice as fast. “In your case, it’s four times as fast,”  Tsukisue jokes to the noticeably overweight Sudo. But Tsukisue may be envious of the fact that fat or not, at least his friend has a wife and daughter to go home to. Tsukisue on the other hand, looks like a guy who has been celibate for a long time, which is fast becoming the norm for many single Japanese men. But (and this is the thing about Tsukisue) the guy is NOT bitter. He’s gentle, kind and above all, conscientious. He does his job, and then goes home to take care of his dad who is recovering from a stroke. Not much of a life for a good-looking dude. But when he discovers that the newcomers he had chaperoned were each convicted for murder or manslaughter, Tsukisue’s equilibrium is shattered. Will they, you know, like, do it again? His supervisor intones to Tsukisue not to dwell on the past. “And don’t go telling people they’ve just gotten out of prison,” adds the supervisor, because this project could well have a bearing on “Japan’s future.”

Based on the award-winning manga by Tatsuhiko Yamagami and Mikio Igarashi, “The Scythian Lamb” is directed by Daihachi Yoshida. As one of Japan’s last old-school filmmakers, Yoshida has a solid reputation for churning out crime/suspense blockbusters like “Pale Moon” in 2014. “Scythian…” shows Yoshida in an unusually political mode, exploring the many woes of Japan’s rapidly shrinking, super aged population and the general feeling that ours is a no-hope, claustrophobic society. Which is probably true, but in “Scythian…,” the suggested silver bullet is violence. No one is excited about Uobuka being, in the words of Tsukisue, “a nice place with kind people and great seafood.” But when a dead body turns up on the pier, everyone seems to get a glint in their eye. A cloudy sky turns blue. An old man even gets laid.

All this is cause for celebration, considering that most of the Uobuka populace acts half-dead most of the time. Even Tsukisue’s high school crush Aya (Fumino Kimura), the supposed heroine of the story, hardly speaks and never smiles. Aya, Tsukisue and Sudo had once played in the same rock band and Tsukisue tries to rekindle their friendship by inviting them to practice again. Aya reluctantly agrees. Big surprise for Tsukisue when he learns that she has started dating one of the ex-cons: Miyakoshi (Ryuhei Matsuda) who comes off like a bullied victim but actually hoards menace like a grandmother with yarn. You know those skinny, quiet guys who may or may not be a serial killer in a Netflix series? That’s Miyakoshi, right down to his discount sneakers. (Editor’s note:And if you’re a student of true crime in Japan, he channels all the skinny sociopaths who have been responsible for some of Japan’s more horrendous mass murders in recent years–but of course, he’s not one. Not quite) 

 

A troubled young man who is quick to appreciate that the town has “nice people and good seafood.” He has one small issue.
© 2018『羊の木』製作委員会 ©山上たつひこ、いがらしみきお/講談社

The others are as compelling if not as troublesome. Still, whenever one or the other is in the frame you sense a storm brewing: Min Tanaka as the ex-yakuza who did eighteen years for killing another boss and feels that it may be too late to start afresh. There is Kazuki Kitamura’s Sugiyama who really enjoys stirring things up, and seems like a refugee from the dismantled gang, Kanto Rengo, which won fame for beating their enemies to death with baseball bats. His confrontation with the ex-yakuza rings surprisingly true. And there’s Shingo Mizusawa as Fukumoto, an ex-barber who slashed his boss’s throat with a razor. The women are given less to do but Mikako Ichikawa and Yuka try to make the most of their roles. Yuka is in her usual hot-chick mode, but Ichikawa manages to steal some scenes as a woman who had routinely been beaten by her boyfriend until one night she cracked his skull as he slept, with a large bottle of sake. “I’m a scary woman,” she tells Tsukisue and it’s moments like these that Uobuka morphs from a nice place with great seafood, to somewhere real.

Opens February 3rd.

Editor’s note: In my opinion, one of the best Japanese films in recent years. The story is subtle, the acting restrained, the quiet violence is convincing.  The movie also has a hypnotic, ethereal  soundtrack that matches well with the buried mystical theme that pulls the film together. (Jake) 

The Yakuza That Stole Halloween: They tricked cops, rival gangs, the media & treated the kids.

TOKYO—

It was a grisly grim and horrific Halloween in Japan but it wasn’t all bad news–there was a yakuza Halloween, after all. After the Yamaguchi-gumi, Japan’s largest organized crime group (yakuza), announced that they would be calling off their annual Halloween party this year, they surprised and delighted the neighborhood children by holding it anyway.

The Trick

The Yamaguchi-gumi had posted a sign around October 20th, that they would be refraining from having the annual Halloween Party this year, due to “various circumstances”.

A liberal translation of the tricky announcement that the Yamaguchi-gumi would be calling off Hallowen.”Every year on October 31, we have held the traditional Halloween [party]. However, this fiscal year, due to a number of various circumstances, we will be halting the event. We understand that we are making the children who were looking forward to this very sad, but next year we absolutely will hold the event, so please look forward to it. Thank you for allowing us to inform you.”
It was an oblique reference to the violent gang wars between factions of the group. There was an attempted assassination of the leader of the Ninkyo Yamaguchi-gumi, a splinter faction, in September. His bodyguard ended up taking the bullet. It seemed like a good call not have the event–no one wants kids caught in the crossfire.

The media reported the non-event, including this reporter. Tensions were low, the children who looked forward to the event, which was restarted last year after a one year hiatus, were unhappy.  

Lining up for cotton candy at the Yamaguchi-gumi HQ. Photo: Natasha Shewa

Not only a sack of great Halloween candy but cotton candy in a Pretty Cure (Glitter Force) bag. My daughter would have loved it–when she was five years old. (Photo by Natasha Shewa)

One of the few regrets in life I’ve had was not taking my kids to trick or treat at the Yamaguchi-gumi Headquarter so they could learn the gentle art of extortion.

 

The Yamaguchi-gumi did have their annual halloween party after all (2014 photo)

The Treat

Suddenly at around 4pm on October 31st (Japan time), gangsters opened the shutters of their headquarters and began distributing bags of candy to the neighborhood kids, as they have done for over a decade. A gangster dressed as a giant jack-o-lantern waved children inside the compound. The yard was garishly decorated with Halloween lights, blow-up pumpkins and ghosts, and a cotton candy machine according to those who attended.

The neighborhood children were delighted. Each garish bag was decorated with jack-o-lanterns and “Happy Halloween” in English. The bags had cookies, crackers, and chocolate filled koalas.“They did celebrate after all,” rejoiced one local woman. “Not only were the decorations great and the gift bags full of tasty stuff, there were two big lines for cotton candy. And the gangsters were super nice.”Some members were in costume distributing bags saying “Happy Halloween!” while others were in white jumpsuits and  bullet-proof vests patrolling he area as the police looked on. “Security was top notch,” stated one mother who attended.

One father in the area of Indian descent wrote me, “The kids got one bag each, worth about 800 yen ($7) worth of stuff. My wife said it was a really fun event.” Many in the large Indian community in Kobe were convinced that they played a role in the tradition, recounting stories of visiting the headquarters in their youth. One woman remembers that eventually Japanese school children began following their lead on Halloween–making costumes out of black garbage bags and tagging along.  This year, as  a special bonus, the Cotton Candy was packaged in a Pretty Cure (Glitter Force) Anime bags. My daughter Beni would have been delighted–if she was still five years old.

For a haul like this, I’d go trick or treating at the Yamaguchi-gumi HQ, if I was 10 years old.

No Masks Necessary

For the rest of the world, the Japanese mafia, even the well-organized Yamaguchi-gumi are frightening creatures. They don’t have to hide in Japan. They don’t wear masks but many of them wear sunglasses and are covered in ornate tattoos, often with violent images, and have a characteristic scowl. Some members cut off a finger in atonement for their own mistakes or on behalf of their friends to settle a dispute. A chopped off finger to atone for your mistakes is known as a shiniyubi (死に指) “a dead finger”. When a pinkie is sacrificed for another person, it’s the more honorable ikiyubi (生き指) or “living finger.” Many yakuza also have facial scars. This dates back to a time when instead of killing a rival, some thugs would just cut the person’s face and let them live. A small number of yakuza deliberately cut their own faces, to give the impression that they had survived a deadly confrontation.

In Japan, to discreetly discuss the yakuza, some people still use their index finger to pantomime cutting their face.

The yakuza derive their revenue from racketeering, gambling, fraud, insider trading, blackmail and other unsavory acts. Many members though, also run legitimate businesses. The Yamaguchi-gumi ostensibly forbids its members from engaging in theft, robbery, and drug dealing. They claim to be a humanitarian organization and are regulated under Japanese laws but not banned outright.

Tricky Yakuza 

The police were less than delighted with today’s “trick.” An organized crime control detective from the Kansai area said, “We weren’t completely caught off guard but it was a risky move in light of the current gang war. I think their rivals (Kobe-Yamaguchi-gumi and the  Ninkyo Yamaguchi-gumi) were snow-jobbed but now I get the ‘trick-or-treat’ thing’ now.” He went on to explain that the party was good PR for the organization. The false cancellation may have been an effort to stave off trouble and the press, he speculated.

Local press has also noted that many people in Japan are now bringing lawsuits against yakuza groups to force them to vacate their local offices. It appears that this year’s Halloween Party was the gang’s way of forestalling this, while gaining the goodwill of the community.  Much of the media came late to the party, but the local newspaper, Kobe Shimbun, posted a slightly critical story around 7:30 pm. They also removed from their website an October 21st article stating that the Halloween party was going to be cancelled, “Probably due to the influence of the gang war.” 

I hastily updated my own article—which was hard to do from the scene of the multiple murders at Zama City. One former Kabukicho talent scout was arrested that day for desecration of a corpse, after police found nine severed human heads and body parts in his apartment. They were looking for a missing woman–they probably found her. It was a grisly Halloween indeed. All things being equal, I wish I’d stuck to my original plans to go to Kobe.

In the end, the Yamaguchi-gumi tricked us all. But in some ways, it was the highlight of my dark Halloween.

The police were pissed and so were some of the media. The kids were just happy to get their candy. And it may be the only time in their little  lives that they get to turn the tables on the yakuza and safely extort something from them. Trick or treat!?

This year it was both.

Some parting words from Yakuza movie icon Takakura Ken on yakuza films, his favourite movies, and acting

“I think that the reason the general public identified with the roles I played, was that they were struck by my stance as a man who unrelentingly stands up to absurd injustices. It wasn’t just that I was just going off to a sword fight, but that my character was willing to sacrifice himself in order to protect the people important to him.”–Ken Takakura, August 2013

In honour of Japan’s Celebration of Cinema Day, December 1st, we’ve reposted some reviews and articles on classic films. Some good, some bad, some epic. This was originally published shortly before his death. 

Japan’s best actor Ken Takakura has died of lymphoma, at age 83. The actor passed away at a Tokyo hospital on 10 November, his office said on Tuesday. He has been called  the “Clint Eastwood” of Japan.  Takakura was renowned for his stoic roles in scores of action films and yakuza movies–he was also adept at playing tough but caring men, clumsy in expressing their emotions. He played alongside Robert Mitchum in Paul Schrader directed film, The Yakuza in 1973. He also starred as a by-the-book, honourable and ultimately brave Japanese police officer alongside US actor Michael Douglas in the 1989 Ridley Scott film Black Rain. One of his lines in the movie, probably inspired millions of Japanese men to later study English conversation: “(I’m ) Assistant Inspector Matsumoto Masahiro, Criminal Investigation section, Osaka Prefecture police. And I do speak fucking English.”

Mr. Schrader told me in March of 2011 that Takakura was one of the most impressive actors he’d ever worked with and that his Kendo (Japanese fencing)  ability seemed top-notch. He had once offered Takakura the role of Yukio Mishima, the literary genius turned right wing extremist, in his bio-pic film Mishima and Takakura had seriously considered it. However, in the end for reasons he only obliquely hinted at, he politely declined the role. The film Mishima has never been shown in a film festival in Japan.

Among his well-known films were “The Yellow Handkerchief”.  He won the best actor prize at the Montreal World Film Festival for “Poppoya” (The Railway Man). He also appeared in some the final “real-life” yakuza bio-pics including 3rd Generation Leader of The Yamaguchi-gumi. During the filming, the former head of the Yamaguchi-gumi, Kazuo Taoka, actually visited the set and spoke with Takakura. Ken Takakura was the consummate professional and even in supporting roles such as in Mr. Baseball, he brought dignity to the Japanese characters that seemed to embody many of Japan’s virtues.

In August of last year, we were able to interview him via FAX and his polite and short responses give a good sense of the man. They are here in both English and Japanese.

 

昭和残侠伝 破れ傘(プレビュー)
Ken Takakura, in a scene from 破れ傘

originally posted on January 31st 2014

Ken Takakura, 82,  aka “the Alain Delon of Japanese cinema” was awarded one of Japan’s greatest honors on November 3rd 2012. The  Order of Culture was given to him by the Japanese Emperor at a ceremony held at the imperial palace. Four other notable people, such as researchers and literature academics also received the award.

Known as to be very quiet and tough, Ken Takakura (高倉健氏) rarely gave interviews to the media throughout his career. He is known for having stayed silent nearly  for 13 seconds (a record for Japanese TV programs) after a famous television caster asked him a question that he did not want to answer. “In Japanese show business, only a tough and well respected celebrity is able to stay silent during a live show and have that tolerated by the producer,” explained a newscaster for one of Japan’s largest broadcasters.

Ken Takakura became an icon of the so-called ninkyou eiga, (任侠映画) or yakuza chivalry movie, inaugurated in 1963 by Toei Production. In the 1960s, as Japan was still recovering from its lost war and musing over the the atomic bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, the Japanese audience wanted to see heroes in the black market making justice in the streets and feeding the dismissed hungry people, right after the war. The movie that kick started his career was Abashiri Prison. He also gained international recognition with the war movie Too Late The Hero, in 1970, and The Yakuza, in 1975. His role in Black Rain with Michael Douglas 1989, made him even more well-known in the West.

Takakura-sama, agreed to answer few questions for JSRC. We carefully translated it and have posted the entire interview. We are also posting it in Japanese, for our Japanese readers.

Interview with Ken Takakura, in August 2013

JSRC: At present, many film fans in the world see you as the personification of the yakuza on screen, almost a symbol. What are your feelings about this?

Ken Takakura: It’s true that I did many yakuza films in the past, but whether or not I’m a symbol or not, I don’t know. I have done many other roles besides those of a yakuza.

JSRC: What led you to join the world of cinema?

Ken Takakura: I had to make a living.

JSRC: What kinds of movies do you like?

Ken Takakura: As I get older, my tastes changed, but I like movies that pierce the human heart and linger with me.

The Deer Hunter, 1978.

The Godfather 1 & 2.

Gladiator  (2006).

Heaven (2002).

Posta Pappi Jaakobille (2009).

JSRC: Do you have any interest in the modern yakuza films?

Ken Takakura: None whatsoever.

JSRC: Mr. Takakura, you have been called the Clint Eastwood of Japan, what do you think of that?

Ken Takakura: It’s what someone else thinks, so I have no thoughts on the matter.

JSRC: Why did you leave Toei Production in 1976?

Ken Takakura: There is no short answer (to that question).

JSRC: After leaving Toei, people were able to see you in many different roles? Was that your goal?

Ken Takakura: (My goal) was to meet people.

JSRC: Directors Takeshi Kitano and Miike are said to be geniuses of yakuza film but what do you think?

Ken Takakura: I’ve never worked with either director so I can’t answer.

END.

But the most striking explanation Ken Takakura gave us was worth mentioning here.

Ken Takakura: You seem to be very focussed on the yakuza films I did while at Toei. If you want to understand, why the yakuza films were endorsed by the (Japanese) people, you can’t do it without thinking of the social situation at the time.

When low budget films (picture programs) were at their peak production in Japan, I’d have a schedule where I’d be doing in 4 or 5 films a months. That doesn’t leave much room to really put your heart into a role. But I think that the reason the general  public identified with the roles I played, was that they were struck by my stance as a man who unrelentingly stands up to absurd injustices. It wasn’t just that I was just going off to a sword fight, but that my character was willing to sacrifice himself in order to protect the people important to him.

The thing that really changed after achieving independence from Toei was that I could choose which films I wanted to be in. I had my own standards for what films I would act in. Who would I meet? The words and lines written in the script. But the most important thing to me was this: would I be able to like the person I was going to play?*

*Portions of this interview were originally published in a French film magazine 

 

Please read this review by Jake Adelstein on the yakuza movies.

 

高倉健様とのインタビュー(2013年、8月)

JSRC: 現在、高倉さまは世界の映画ファンにとって日本のヤクザのイメージシンボルとして見られていると思いますがその事をどうお考えでしょうか?

 

高倉健様:かつて、何本もヤクザ映画をやりましたが、シンボルかどうかは分かりません。そうではない役も、今まで沢山やっておりますので。

JSRC: 高倉様が映画の世界に入られたきっかけは何でしたか?

高倉健様:生きるため。

JSRC: 高倉様はどのような種類の映画がお好きですか?

高倉健様:年齢とともに好みは変わってきていますが、心に沁みるものが好きです。

The Deer Hunter, 1978, 監督:マイケル・チミノ

The Godfather 1, 2, フランシス・フォード・コッポラ

Gladiator, 2006, リドリー・スコット

Heaven, 2002, トム・ティクヴァ

Posta Pappi Jaakobille, 2009, クラウス・ハロ

JSRC: 高倉様は任侠道ヤクザ映画で活躍されましたが今時のモダンヤクザ映画には興味はございませんか?

高倉健様:ありません。

JSRC: 高倉様は日本のクリント・イーストウッド、安藤昇様は日本のアラン・ドロンと呼ばれていますがその事についてはどうお感じですか?

高倉健様:他人が思うことなので、分かりません。

JSRC: 高倉様は1976年に東映を離れたのはなぜですか?

高倉健様:一口では言えません。

JSRC: 東映を離れてからの高倉様の作品から世界は今までとは別の高倉様を見せられるわけですが、それは高倉様の目的でもあったのでしょうか?

高倉健様:人との出会いです。

JSRC: 北野監督、三池監督はヤクザ映画作りの天才だと思いますか?

高倉健様:両監督とは仕事をしたことがないので答えられません。

高倉健様:東映時代のヤクザ映画に注目されているようですが、ヤクザ映画が大衆の支持を受けられたのは、時代背景抜きには考えられないでしょう。

プログラムピクチャー全盛時代、一ヶ月に4、5本撮るようなスケジュールは1本に心を入れる余裕はありませんでしたが、その中で、私が演じた役に大衆の共感が得られた背景には、不条理に立ち向かうという姿勢が貫かれたからだと思います。

ただ、切り込みに向かうのではなく、自らを犠牲にしてまでも大切な人を守り抜くということです。

東映から独立して最も異なることは、出演する作品を選べるようになったことです。出演作を選ぶ基準は、人との出逢い、脚本に書かれた一言の台詞、最も大切にしていることとは、その役の人物を好きになれるかどうかです。

 

 

Aliens Versus Yakuza: 宇宙人対極道: A Masterpiece Of Bad Genre Films

In honour of Japan’s Celebration of Cinema Day, December 1st, we’ve reposted some reviews and articles on classic films. Some good, some bad, some epic.

AVN: Aliens Versus Ninja (エイリアンvs 忍者)released in 2010 is a camp classic for both lovers of Alien films and Ninja films. I was delighted to find that the super-deluxe release of AVN included on the second disc a 15 minute short-film エイリアン Vs 極道 (Alien Versus Yakuza), a Yuji Shinomura film . If you find the movie in the bargain bin at the local Tsutaya, it’s worth picking up. The plot is simple. Young yakuza and his older brother–in the yakuza sense–accidentally run over an Alien while on their way to late-night Karaoke in the boss’s car. They aren’t quite sure what to do with the body.  They don’t even realize it’s an alien, believing that they’ve just run over an unlucky foreigner. “Maybe half?”

Our hapless yakuza anti-heroes run over an alien and decide to get rid of the body. Not sure exactly what it is, they decide it must be a foreigner–and probably half-Japanese.

After a short debate, they decide to dismember the body and get rid of the evidence.  Young yakuza goes to scour the glove department for a big knife, buried amidst piles of trashy magazines, but when he comes back the trunk is empty and his older brother (兄貴/aniki) is acting strangely. Could it be that Older Brother realized younger brother had slept with his girlfriend or has something stranger happened?  Even when younger brother confesses and makes a peace offering; “Only once! Only slept with her once. I saved you a seat at the speed-dating thing (合コン・gokon)–can we call it even?” –Aniki’s anger is not quelled. What happens next is almost totally predictable but even after the young yakuza confronts the ousted alien, accusing him of being an 当たり屋 (atariya), a con man who shakes people down by throwing themselves in front of a car and suing for damages–the fight isn’t quite over. Because this Alien has a driver’s license.

Young yakuza throws a cigarette at the alien, accusing him of being an 当たり屋 (a professional con man who throws himself in front of cars to extort insurance money.)

I wouldn’t want to spoil the rest of the film for our readers but it does solve the ancient question: in a battle between an alien and a yakuza, who would win?  Note: Some may argue that this question was settled in the masterpiece Predators, where the lone Inagawa-kai member in the film faces down a Predator with an ancient samurai sword,  but  Predators are really not your standard aliens. The film is bloody, silly, and probably unrealistic* but in the short yakuza film genre, it’s in a class by itself.

*For instance, I don’t think it’s possible to catch a bullet in your teeth but I’m not a war reporter so I’ll reserve judgement.

The Hardest Men In Town: Chronicles of Sin, Sex, Violence and 1975 classic gangster film THE YAKUZA

In honour of Japan’s Celebration of Cinema Day, December 1st, we’ve reposted some reviews and articles on classic films. Some good, some bad, some epic.This was originally posted on March 10th 2011. (Wow, who would have guessed what would happen a day later.) It has been reposted to commemorate the passing of yakuza movie icon, Ken Takakura, on November 10th 2014. 

Today, March 9th, began the first day of the Globus Film Series, Hardest Men in Town: Yakuza Chronicles of Sin, Sex and Violence presented by the Japan Society New York.

Hardest Men In Town: Yakuza Chronicles of Sin, Sex and Violence March 9th-19th, 2001 Japan Society New York

The film festival opened with a bang or rather the swoosh of a katana (刀) slashing through the air with the showing of Sydney Pollack’s overlooked 1975 classic gangster film, The Yakuza, which starred Toei Yakuza film regular Takakura Ken and film noire/hardboiled action star, Robert Mitchum. “Mitchum, in one of his best roles of the 1970s, is drawn to the Orient by an army buddy (Brian Keith), whose daughter has been kidnapped. But when he gets to Japan, Mitchum finds that her kidnappers are the shadowy Yakuza, the Japanese Mafia–an organization that is as vicious as it is tradition-bound. He must call on friends he made after World War II for favors and finds himself unintentionally trampling on issues of honor, even as he battles for his life and that of the girl he is seeking.” (from Amazon.com)

The script was written by Paul Schrader, better known  for writing such classics as Taxi Driver and  Raging Bull. It is probably one of the most unique yakuza films ever made, in which an American and an ex-yakuza form an uneasy alliance. Takakura Ken would later go on to play the stiff, rule-bound but honorable organized crime control division detective in Ridley Scott’s Black Rain. In the genre, the only thing that comes close to having the same components is Kitano Takeshi’s Brother. (PS. If you can find a copy of the Japanese original version which is 40 minutes longer than the cut released in the west, watch it instead of the US version. It makes it a much better film.)

The tag-line for The Yakuza when released on DVD is an eloquent summary of the yakuza code. “A man never forgets. A man pays his debts.”  While the movie is not as close to approaching the realism of 鬼火 (Onibi: The Fire Within) which has its US debut tomorrow (March 10th), it is an amazing film and the sword fighting scenes at the climax are breathtakingly done and some of the tensest action scenes you’ll ever see in any film.

After Paul Schrader did the introductions, I was lucky enough to have dinner with him, and Stephen E. Globus who made the event possible. During his prefatory remarks, and before and after dinner, Mr. Schrader shared the story of how he became interested in the yakuza and the background to the film and his other still-banned-in-Japan masterpiece, Mishima, which depicted the life of famous Japanese novelist and late-blooming right-wing idol Mishima Yukio. Mishima committed seppuku, or hara-kiri (ritual self-embowlment), at Japan’s Self-Defense base in Ichigaya as his final literary statement. According to Mr. Schrader, he intended to write a final poem with a brush-pen dipped in the blood flowing from his guts. Unfortunately, his subordinate botched the job of lobbing off Mishima’s head and other things left that final poem unwritten.

When I was a student at Sophia University in the 90’s, I taught English to one of the doctor’s who performed the autopsy of Mishima. He told me that his shoulders had three or four deep cuts where his disciple had clearly missed the target: Mishima’s neck. This evening while drinking Otokoyama (男山, Man-Mountain), my favorite sake, with the screenwriter, Mr. Globus and members of the Japan society, was the first time I ever knew that there was more botched in that final act than just the decapitation. In his closing remarks, Mr. Schrader also noted that originally Takakura Ken had been offered the role of Mishima but politely bowed out later saying obliquely and apologetically, “There are certain forces that do not want me to do this film and as part of that subculture, I must decline.”

Schrader’s original reason for being interested in the yakuza and film about them came from his brother, who was living in Japan, and wrote him of those amazing Toei studio yakuza films, and the splendor of Japanese life. Schrader expressed his fondness for the rigid rules and politeness of Japanese society, noting, “If I had grown up under those rules, I would have probably hated them. But as a foreigner, I benefit from them but yet am not expected to obey them.”  His own daughter was born in Japan in the 80’s on a particularly auspicious day. He hopes someday to be invited to the Tokyo Film Festival but as of yet, since the making of the controversial Mishima and the refusal once of the film festival to show it, he hasn’t been invited to Japan as a speaker for any film festival. The reality of the yakuza (and their hold on Japan’s film industry) are not the only taboo subjects in Japan.

The Yakuza. Poster for the release in Japan.

Tomorrow, March 10th, I will be lecturing on Yakuza In Popular Media & Real LIfe: Cracks and Chasms from 6:30 pm. This will be followed by the U.S. premiere of the fantastic Onibi: The Fire Within. It was an honor and a pleasure to meet Mr. Schrader who was funny, humble, and even accommodated my request for the obligatory commemorative photo.

Jake Adelstein (Tokyo Vice), Paul Schrader (The Yakuza, Mishima, Taxi Driver), and Motoatsu Sakurai, president of the Japan Society.

(Please notice, that in a bow of respect to Sandra Barron’s amazing article on the history of the peace sign in Japan, that I’m making the mandatory V-sign and/or peace gesture.)

 

Yakuza University: It’s a hard knock education

The underworld has its own language, and its own idioms.

Higher education for many yakuza begins in jail.
Higher education for many yakuza begins in jail.

Yakuza are not the exception to the rule. For example, instead of saying “going to jail” (刑務所に行く: keimusho ni iku), they say “going to university” (大学に行く : daigaku ni iku). This phrase has a special meaning and is not used randomly. First, yakuza consider that jail is informative, a required kind of rite of passage to become a true gangster. Then, because prison is actually, for the yakuza, an educational place, in a scholastic sense. If they are rich enough (and it is often the case, or their oyabun’s position, given that one of his duties is to provide assistance to his subordinates), they can learn calligraphy, painting, but also the art of haiku, among other things. They get books from other clan members, but others are provided by the Government within the prison. One can find in these prison libraries masterpiece of literature, but more surprisingly, economic or even law books. In fact, the yakuza often get out jail with a better academic level than they had at the time of their incarceration. This “Prison University” is even more important to them than the majority of yakuza has never graduate, and many of them have even stopped attending school before the end of high school.
To talk about jail, yakuza also use terms such as “slammer” (豚箱 : butabako)–literally “pigbox” or “hard labor” (懲役に行く : chōeki ni iku); despite its few advantages (when you have the money to afford them), prison remains a detention center, not a holiday club.
Some of the less bright yakuza spend so much time in jail that they are mostly yakuza in name only. Amongst themselves, they are referred to a ”prison yakuza” (懲役ヤクザ: choeki yakuza).

 

 

Le monde criminel possède souvent son propre langage et ses propres expressions. Les yakuza ne font pas exception à la règle. Par exemple, plutôt que de dire « aller en prison » (刑務所に行く : keimusho ni iku),  ils diront « aller à l’université » (大学に行く : daigaku ni iku). Cette expression a un sens bien particulier et n’est pas utilisée au hasard. D’abord parce que les yakuza considèrent que la prison est formatrice, une sorte de rite de passage obligatoire pour devenir un vrai gangster. Ensuite, parce que la prison est effectivement, pour les yakuza, un lieu de formation et d’éducation, au sens scolaire du terme. S’ils sont assez riches (et c’est souvent le cas, ou bien le cas de leur oyabun, dont l’un des devoirs est de prodiguer à ses subordonnés une assistance), ils peuvent apprendre la calligraphie, la peinture, mais aussi l’art des haiku, entre autre choses. Ils reçoivent des livres de la part d’autres membres du clan, mais d’autres sont mis à disposition par le gouvernement au sein même de la prison. On peut trouver dans ces bibliothèques carcérales des grands classiques de littératures, mais, plus surprenant, des livres d’économie ou même de droit. De fait, les yakuza ressortent souvent de prison avec un bien meilleur niveau scolaire que celui qu’ils avaient au moment de leur incarcération. Cette « université de la prison » est d’autant plus importante pour eux que la grande majorité des yakuza n’a jamais fait d’études supérieures, et que beaucoup d’entre eux ont même cessé de fréquenter l’école avant la fin du lycée.

Pour parler de la prison, les yakuza emploient également d’autres expressions, comme « la taule » (豚箱 : butabako), ou encore « aller au bagne » (懲役に行く : chōeki ni iku); malgré ses quelques avantages (quand on a l’argent pour se les offrir), la prison n’en reste pas moins un centre de détention, et pas un club de vacances.