Friday, January 22, 2010

Yakuza Cinema: A Guide For The Uninitiated

The postwar period in Japan saw many changes to society; with the collapse of the former government regime and the destruction of most of the country's industrial infrastructure many people turned to the black market to survive. By 1947 Japan had drawn up a new constitution and although the Emperor was allowed to keep his royal title, power was transferred to the National Diet of Japan. While the newly instituted constitution, mainly authored by the American Occupation Forces, was devoted to establishing a set of fundamental human rights for every citizen regardless of their age, class, or gender the Japanese private sector began to grow and expand in conjunction with several economic policies passed by the new ruling body. With the assistance of the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers (SCAP) Japan would, in the span of a decade, rise from the ashes of World War II to become important players on the global stage.
Even during this period of rapid modernization and economic growth the Japanese populace were wary of the new way of life being forced down their throats and began to look back towards their collective past for some sort of heroic archetype that they could model their lives on. Although the samurai was a staple of Japanese cinema just as the cowboy was to American cinema the jidai-geki, period film, was going through its own upheavals during the 1960's. What cinema-goers were looking for was a character that embodied the samurai's code of ethics and yet was grounded in the reality of a society torn between eastern tradition and western capitalism.
In Japanese history the yakuza can trace their origins as far back as 1612 when groups of men called the kabuki-mono, literally translated as the "crazy ones", would wander from town to town in distinct clothing and hairstyles brandishing longswords and committing heinous acts of violence. Of course to many yakuza they saw themselves as having a more refined pedigree and cite the machi-yakko, city servant, as their true ancestors. The machi-yakko were the ordinary citizens of a town with professions as varied as tavern owners, merchants, or itinerant samurais who would be charged with protecting their villages from the kabuki-mono. In reality though yakuza were loyal to no one except their oyabun, crime boss. The oyabun-kobun relationship is the guiding principle within the yakuza hierarchy. The kobun, child role, must pledge loyalty and obedience to the oyabun; this relationship superseded a yakuza's other commitments to their family or to the state, and oftentimes it meant that a kobun's life would be sacrificed so that the oyabun could continue to profit from all the illicit activities that they were involved in.
As a genre of film the yakuza-eiga can be divided into two categories: the ninkyo-eiga and the jitsuroku-eiga. The ninkyo-eiga or "chivalry films" were populated by honorable outlaws caught between the opposing values of giri, duty, and ninjo, compassion. A typical plot for a ninkyo-eiga picture could revolve around a young initiate to a gang who must work under a cruel and despicable oyabun and because of the code of giri the young man must commit several heinous acts that go against his own sense of right and wrong all in the name of yakuza tradition. Justice in the film is only met when the evil oyabun does something so atrocious that the yakuza protagonist can no longer suppress their own humanity, in which case the evil oyabun must die. Of course by pursuing this path of action the yakuza protagonist is doomed to one of two fates; they die in their attempt to kill their evil master or they complete their task and are relegated to spending the rest of their lives in jail. In a ninkyo-eiga the yakuza are martyred knight-errants sacrificing their own lives and happiness to maintain the social order.
By the start of the 1970's though the romanticism of the ninkyo-eiga gave way to the gritty documentary realism of the jitsuroku-eiga. The new breed of yakuza found in the jitsuroku-eiga had shed their identity as honorable outlaws and completely embraced western capitalism. The concepts of giri and ninjo were relics of an unobtainable past and were only referenced by sadistic crime bosses who needed an excuse to get their men to do their dirty work for them. A perfect example of the jitsuroku-eiga can be seen in the work of director Kinji Fukasaku, specifically in the Jingi Naki Tatakai (Battles Without Honor and Humanity) films that he did for Toei studios from 1973-1974. Fukasaku's unsentimental crime pictures held an unflinching light upon the brutality of yakuza life and the inherent hypocrisy of the oyabun-kobun relationship.
Due to the yakuza-eiga's roots in grindhouse cinema the genre is usually relegated to the dustbin or more often than not treated as a curio by more myopic cinephiles. When studying the yakuza-eiga or any genre for that matter it is pertinent to remember Paul Schrader's words in his 1974 Film Comment piece, "Yakuza-Eiga: A Primer", where he wrote: "Genres are not free flights of the imagination. The art of a genre occurs within the strictures. Only when one understands that icons are supposed to be two-dimensional does the study of their shape and form become interesting. Similarly, it is only after one understands - and appreciates - the genre conventions of yakuza-eiga that the study of its themes and styles becomes enlightening...The purpose of genre conventions is first of all functional; each has an assembly-line task to perform. The function of a yakuza plot is to create a web of duties and humanitarian obligations. The function of yakuza characterization is to create characters susceptible to the demands of those obligations. The function of the set pieces is to put flash and filagree into the film so that it will not drag while the web of duties and obligations is being woven." Although the yakuza-eiga is a relatively recent film genre it has developed several unique genre tropes, many related to real-life yakuza rituals:
  • The sake-sharing ceremony is a formalized ritual performed to seal bonds of brotherhood between individual yakuza members or as a way to publicly acknowledge an alliance between two opposing families. Films that exploit the dramatic worth of the sake-sharing ceremony usually have plots which revolve around a yakuza protagonist caught between their loyalty to their oyabun and their pledge of brotherhood to another yakuza, usually a member of an opposing gang.
  • The yubitsume, a ritual involving the cutting of one's finger as a form of penance, originated with the bakuto, itinerant gamblers, who would amputate their little finger as a way to pay off a gambling debt. In the ninkyo-eiga the ritual becomes an extension of the code of honor that the yakuza themselves believe they live by. By the time of the jitsuroku-eiga though the yubitsume ceremony is stripped down to a simple act of restitution, but this eye for an eye mentality rarely ever brought justice to those who were wronged.
  • Irezumi or the ancient Japanese art of tattooing has long been associated with the criminal class in Japan and even when occupation forces legalized the practice of tattooing in 1945 it still maintained that stigma of criminality with many businesses in Japan banning customers who openly sport their tattoos in public. In the yakuza-eiga the full-body tattoos that yakuza don serve as talismans and link them to the warrior tradition. It also helped create a visual dividing line between the yakuza and non-yakuza members of society. Those inked with the elaborate images of dragons, koi, and tengu spirits became the other in a society that values conformity. It dehumanized the yakuza and turned a bunch of reckless thugs into demons that needed vanquishing.
  • The aesthetics of death is a topic of great importance in dealing not only with the yakuza-eiga but also when discussing the chambara, samurai film. In the ninkyo-eiga where the distinction between yakuza and samurai can get blurry the final confrontation between the yakuza protagonist and the evil oyabun is a moment of catharsis. A perfect example of this can be seen in Seijun Suzuki's 1965 yakuza picture Irezumi Ichidai (Tattooed Life) where the final set piece is an elaborate explosion of saturated colors, inventive camera angles, and a melange of chambara and yakuza-eiga tropes. By the time of the jitsuroku-eiga though yakuza were swapping their katana's for baseball bats and pistols and the ritual of the duel gave way to the shaky cam poetics of the brawl.
Presently the yakuza-eiga lies dormant. Although there have been stabs at resurrecting it by internationally acclaimed directors like Takeshi Kitano and Takashi Miike its popularity is relegated to a small minority of asian cinema fanatics. With the rise in popularity of the comic book superhero there may not be any room left in the cinema for realistic portrayals of men living on the edges of society. The yakuza-eiga itself was a genre that developed as a modern take on the chambara so maybe in a few years a group of talented writers, directors, and actors will give birth to a genre that is not only a popular form of entertainment but also addresses contemporary themes and issues just as the yakuza-eiga did during its heyday.