The Yakuza Movie Book: A Guide To Japanese Gangster Films by Mark Schilling is more than just a book of reviews about Japan’s gangster (yakuza) cinema, it turns out to be an excellent reference book on the history of the yakuza (ヤクザ・極道・暴力団）and their place in Japanese popular culture over the years.
The book is divided into four main section, A Brief History of Yakuza Films, Director Profiles and Interviews, Actor Profiles and Interviews, and Film Reviews. Mark Schilling does an excellent job of explaining the history of the yakuza in the foreword and the selection of films and the reviews are spot on. (The book also has an acknowledgement to Mark Schreiber, a friend and one of the foremost experts on the history of crime in Japan.)
Mark Schilling is a Japanese cinema critic for The Japan Times but it’s clear he has a special place in his heart for the yakuza film. The book reviews some of my favorites, including Onibi: The Fire Within (鬼火) which is in many ways, while slightly outdated, the most realistic film I’ve ever seen about the yakuza. The hero or anti-hero as you might call him, has no tattoos, no missing fingers. The cops that crack down on the mob look just like the mobsters, as it has been for years. The films of Kitano Takeshi, who knows a great deal about the yakuza, are also reviewed. There are some films missing that I would have liked to have seen reviewed, like Black Rain, which despite its shortcomings, was one of the few recent yakuza films in years well-known in the states. It also has real yakuza playing yakuza: method acting at its finest. I hope that a future edition will be issued to include Kitano’s 2010 film, Outrage, which is a starkly depressing look at the new generation of yakuza where money triumphs over honor and any rudimentary code that once existed.
I’ve been covering the yakuza for over 17 years now and a few of them have become friends, of a sort, at least the ones that haven’t been killed or blown out their own brains. I read the book with a slightly jaundiced eye. I would have to disagree with the assertions that no white man or foreigner could ever become a full-fledged yakuza. Some have. There is of course a glass ceiling in place but most yakuza groups are meritocracies; if you can earn your keep, you can rise up the ladder. In many ways, the yakuza flourished in post-war Japan because they were equal opportunity employers. Burakumin (the untouchables of Japan’s old caste system) ? Korean? Taiwanese? No problem–just pledge your allegiance to the oyabun (親分）and pay your dues and you were in. The glossary is a wonderful reference section to yakuza terminology. There is only one small mistake on page 323. Where the author meant to write about Japan’s third largest crime group, the Inagawa-kai (稲川会), he mistakenly calls them the Inugawa-kai (犬川会). One stray vowel can change so much. (LOL). “Ina” (稲) means rice, while “Inu”(犬）means dog. However, in yakuza slang, “a dog” (犬）is synonym for a police informant or a spy. Let’s hope that gets corrected before someone in the Inagawa-kai who reads English picks up a copy. Well, they’d probably just laugh, but judging from the history of the group their bite is definitely worse than their bark.
I’ve been surprisingly disinerested in the history of the yakuza, both culturally and chronologically, and primarily studied about their activities as reporter since 1994. I learned a lot from this book that I didn’t know and it is very well-written. If you are interested in Japanese pop-culture, Japanese cinema, and/or the underworld, this book is valuable reference material. And it’s a fun read, very well-illustrated. It inspired me to go and buy a very nice wooden sword to practice for invading a yakuza lair, single-handedly (not).
Jokes aside, Mr. Schilling’s observations on the differences between old school yakuza films and the yakuza of Kitano’s modern films are extremely apt: “There are parallels, however, between Kitano’s dirty heroes and Takakura’s clean-cut ones: Both are contemptuous of death in the best samurai tradition and both define macho cool for their respective generations.” This one passage convinced me that I would have never been a very good yakuza, in this life or a past life. There are of course, the moral issues of not wanting to make a living exploiting others. I also have great respect for death; I like staying alive. I’m also neither macho nor cool but I do have a geeky fondness for these films, in which the stoic heroes are so willing to lay down their lives for duty, for honor, or for greater principles. If Tokyo Vice is eventually turned into a movie, I hope it will be one that Mr. Schilling deems worthy of a good review. For me, the glossary alone was worth the price of admission.