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I've been a house painter, dishwasher, broiler cook, private detective, military intelligence analyst, and I spent nearly 40 years as a reporter covering crime, 26 of them for the San Francisco Chronicle. These days I write science fiction, fantasy, horror and crime fiction, and I blog about books, films and crimes that don't receive sufficient attention from the mainstream media. I would like to be Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, Dashiell Hammett or George V. Higgins, but all of them are dead so I'll just stick with what I am already doing. . .

Thursday, August 20, 2015

In Takeshi's "Outrage," 20 years of Japanese Economic Stagnation Have Rung Big Changes in the Yakuza Underworld

Directed by Takeshi Kitano
Starring Takeshi Kitano, Kippei Shiina, Tomokazu Miura, Ryo Kase, Fumio Kohinata.

In Outrage (2010), Otomo (Takeshi Kitano, who not only stars in the films but also directed them) is the equivalent of an underworld blue collar worker: an aging Yakuza soldier who heads a crew for one of Japan’s multifarious boryokudan syndicates.

He is a “punk” as one Yakuza calls him, a worker bee, not a boss. He more closely resembles Henry Hill in Wiseguys than Michael Corleone in The Godfather.

Otomo and Mizuno take out a rival
But even a worker bee has a sting. Otomo is a hard guy who serves as enforcer for Kato (Tomokazu Miura), the leader of one of the gangs in the powerful Sanno-kai, a fictional crime syndicate loosely based on the Yamaguchi-gumi, a real-life 

organization that controls the rackets in Japan’s Kanto plains.

He is a legitimate bad-ass: a former boxer and cold-blooded killer who shoots people as casually as if he was ordering a tall Kirin from a bar girl in Asakusa. Snake-quick to violence and unafraid of anyone, including his Yakuza masters, Otomo’s fearsome nature is concealed by his deadpan appearance – he never seems to become excited, regardless of how much violence is occurring around him.

Otomo (Takeshi Kitano)

His menace is implicit. In the film, Takeshi rarely raises his voice. He doesn’t have to threaten or shout: his violent reputation has won him grudging respect, even from gang leaders who refer to him as a punk in private.

At a Yakuza banquet that seems more a funeral than a celebratory gathering (for reasons that will eventually become clear), Otomo’s boss engineers the elimination of a lesser gang affiliated with a rival, Ikemoto (Jun Kunimura). The task falls to Otomo, who organizes an “autorage” (Outrage) designed to provoke a war in which one gang is eliminated and another brought under the tighter control of Sekiuchi, the Sanno-kai’s head (Soichiro Kitamura).

Yakuza drivers wait outside the funereal Sanno-kai banquet

Meanwhile, Detective Kataoka (Fumiyo Kohinata), a deeply corrupt police detective from the anti-gang squad, manipulates all sides of the dispute for his own advantage, taking bribes from the rival gang leaders and pushing his old associate, Otomo, to eliminate various people in ways that will earn him praise and promotions for his shrewd police work.

Detective Kataoka visits Otomo in prison
In some ways, what follows is a series of gang-war set pieces, incidents that escalate in violence and in which Otomo’s crew  is systematically eliminated while wiping out the other gang. Betrayal follows betrayal and Kato eventually rises to a position where he murders Sekiuchi and takes over the entire Sanno-kai.

Slowly it becomes apparent that Otomo’s crew has itself been targeted for destruction. His closest associates are shot to death by Yakuza assassins and his loyal right-hand man, Mizuno (Kippei Shiina) is all but beheaded by a hit team working for Kato.

Otomo's sidekick and lieutenant, Mizuno
With his crew gone and his boss turned against him, Otomo surrenders to the crooked but ingratiating Detective, Kataoka, and is put in prison. In one of the final scenes of Outrage, Kimura (Hideo Nakano), a rival whose face Otomo has slashed during the gang war, meets him in the prison’s exercise yard and sticks him in the belly with a makeshift shank.

The bloodbath continues in Beyond Outrage (2013), a sequel to the original film. Otomo, it turns out, was only wounded by the prison-yard knifing. He recovers and is serving his time, weary of a life of crime and without any connections among the current generation of gangsters outside the penitentiary’s walls.

The crooked  detective Kataoka arranges for Otomo to get an early release, hoping to whip up the rivalries between the various leaders of the Sanno-Kai. But Otomo spurns his attempted enlistment, suspecting Kataoka is playing gang members off against each other.

The old gangster plans to take the offer of an industrialist friend and emigrate to South Korea, but Kimura, the man who stabbed him in prison then later reconciled with him, dreams only of regaining his Yakuza family and persuades Otomo to join him in seeking revenge against Kato and the other renegade Sanno-kai gangsters.

Otomo is initially reluctant, but after he is attacked in an elevator by an inept assassin sent by Kato, he agrees to help Kimura get his revenge.

The two older Yakuza have no chance against the army of killers at Kato’s disposal, so they forge an alliance with a group of southern gangsters, the Hanabishi-kai. Once again a bloodbath ensues which ends with a confrontation between Otomo and Kataoka outside a Yakuza funeral.

Otomo and Kimura seek the help of the Hanabishi-kai

A third film is supposedly in the works, but little information about it has leaked to date. However, even without a full trilogy, there is a neat bit of of symbolic symmetry at work in beginning the two films with a funereal banquet and ending it with an actual funeral.

There is a reason for this symbolism: what Takeshi seems to be making is not simply a Yakuza movie but a critique of the breakdown of the Japanese social order as a result of the country’s economic collapse. This is why they banquet in the opening sequence resembles a memorial service: taken together, Outrage and Beyond Outrage form a stylized funeral for a way of life based on loyalty, shared purpose and solidarity that overshadows all other considerations.

In the 1980s Japan, Like China today, was considered an economic powerhouse likely to eventually rule the capitalist world. The country’s surge in industrial power inspired stories like Michael Crichton’s controversial Rising Sun, in which Japanese Corporations attain a dominant position vis-à-vis their U.S. rivals.

But the Japanese bubble burst (much as it is beginning to in China) and the country plunged into two decades worth of economic stagnation. That stagnation not only slowed the growth of the Japanese economy and undermined the country’s march to financial dominance but also had major effects on Japanese society as a whole, eliminating much of the cultural glue that inspired the Japanese economic “miracle” in the first place.

A presentation on cultural values created by Stanford University scholars Danny Pyo, Joanna Hewitson and Elizabeth Gordon says Japanese culture is arranged around such factors as an individual's obligation to the group, behaving according to status, collective action and harmony.

These tendencies are deeply ingrained in the nation's social structure and also are critical elements of its way of organizing businesses and marketing products.

Tomoko Oikawa and Brian Coates, two specialists in Japanese culture and communication in Limerick, Ireland, have examined the operation of Japanese keiretsu (business groups) to see which cultural variables play the biggest role in internal operations. The conclusion they reached? "Our findings are that keiretsu belongs to cultural values, that is, trust & dependence. The keiretsu as an economic organization is just a phenomenon of keiretsu values."

Trust and dependence are not primary factors in western business decision-making processes, which tend to emphasize individual initiative over collective activity.

As Eric Messerschmidt, a lecturer at the Institute for Asian Studies at Florida Internation University puts it, the Japanese economy "still runs on family or group dynamics rather than the rule of law or free market forces and [it is] one in which most disputes are settled on a personal level because of the lack of trust in the judiciary."

The boryokudan works in much the same fashion as the keiretsu: the primary relationship is between the kobun (underling) and oyabun (boss); personal relationships, loyalty and trust are key, and much business is conducted by means of handshake agreements.

"Because so many of the business transactions are done with a handshake and a lack of a paper trail, this makes it easier for tendering systems and bids to be fixed, for example, and for the Yakuza to muscle in," Messerschmidt writes.

This cultural affinity for trust, loyalty and personal harmony has been breaking down as a result of the "lost decades" of economic stagnation in Japan. As Peter Hill, a sociologist at Meiji Gakuin university in Tokyo, puts it in his paper, Heisei Yakuza: Burst Bubble and Bōtaihō,  "the continuing economic hardship faced by the yakuza is weakening the intra- and inter-organisational mechanisms by which they have tried to stabilize their world."

Takeshi seems to be building the plots of Outrage and Beyond Outrage around the deterioration of the country's social fabric mentioned by these experts.
Take away the violence and the gore and the settings where the action takes place could be the meeting places and offices of any large Japanese corporation. The parallels between boryokudan organization and Japanese corporate structure are continually underscored throughout each film, as are the notion that the traditional interpersonal relationships which once characterized the Japanese underworld have given way to rampant individualism, personal greed and a lack of concern for the group as a whole.

Thus, Kato, the new Sanno-kai boss, is relentlessly ambitious; Ishihara, an Otomo underling who betrays his old boss in the first film, setting up Otomo’s fall from grace, is disloyal and self-absorbed. The leaders of the Hanabishi-kai covet the Sanno territory and only commit to Kimura’s revenge plot so they can benefit from it by supplanting their rivals.

Ishihara has a private business conference
with an underling who has displeased him.
On numerous occasions, Yakuza leaders discussing Kimura and Otomo behind their backs ridicule them as old line Yakuza. The implication is, they are out of date, hidebound – and thus poor candidates for the new post-bubble Japanese underworld.

At one point Kimura bites off the first joint of his little finger as an offering of loyalty and atonement to the Hanabishi-kai. The senior gangsters are appalled; they would rather argue with Otomo than actually accept the mutilated digit that Kimura offers.

The incident is one of several occasions in the films in which the practice of yubitsumi (finger cutting), a significant boryokudan tradition, is disrespected. In the first, members of Otomo's clique, having engineered a loss of face for another gang's boss, declines an underling's finger offered as a gesture of atonement, saying "do you think money and a punk's finger can make up for it?" 

Almost immediately afterward, Otomo's crew demands that the underboss of the rival gang cut his own little finger off at the first joint to make amends. Adding insult to injury, they offer him a dull box cutter to sever the joint instead of a sword or a hammer and chisel as is normally the case.

By themselves, these are small examples of derisive behavior, but they symbolize the collapse of long-standing traditions. Takeshi uses them well to illustrate the larger point about Japanese society he is making in Outrage and its sequel. 

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The Cheaper the Crook, the Gaudier the Patter

A writer friend of mine, Les Edgerton (the author of The Rapist and Just Like That), recently did a blog post about a conflict with newspaper outlets about the title of one of his novels that was re-released last year.

The book in question is The Bitch, a story of a habitual criminal. The “Bitch” of the title is inmate slang for a repeat offender who will receive a life sentence if convicted of a third felony.

The outlets expressed reservations about using the title in the review because many people see “Bitch” as a toxic put-down of women, despite the fact that the word is used thirty times a night on prime time TV and was the title of a book by Jackie Collins that subsequently was turned into a movie starring her sister, Joan.

Les has written at length about the dispute in his blog, and his post is worth reading on its own (as are the other items in his blog).  I won’t offer a judgment on his book for the simple reason that I haven’t read it yet (honest, Les – it’s one of the 70 or 80 titles on my TBR list!) 

Les Edgerton
But I have some specific observations I would like to share about the conflict over the title, simply because I have strong feelings about the use of words and phrases drawn from the background of characters – particularly criminals, prison inmates and law enforcement officers. 

This particular dispute involving Les reminds me of some of the continuing chatter among writers about readers and reviewers who give them low star ratings on GoodReads or Amazon because their fiction contains coarse language -- specifically terms relating to bodily functions or sex acts. Many readers -- and some critics -- complain about the language used by fictional characters, accusing the authors who created them of having perverse attitudes or potty mouths.

I think this attitude is misdirected. Writers don't generally have obscenities emerge from their characters' mouths because they want to shock or titillate. They damned sure don't stick them in their copy because they are the only words that they know,

They have their characters use these words and phrases to give a sense of their social class standing, education, life experience and a myriad of other bits of background. 

When defense attorneys in real life organized crime cases are trying to impeach gang-banging witnesses, they invariably point to their felony records and ask, "how can you believe these peoples' testimony? They are crooks who have committed terrible crimes."

Prosecutors often respond, "We are putting long-time criminals on the stand because gangsters don't usually do business with the Monsignor." 

Well, people in crime novels often use underworld slang, bad grammar and obscenity when they speak for the same reason: they are criminals -- killers, thieves, pimps, dope dealers -- not choirboys.

I believe that the artful use of slang, professional terminology or even obscenity is one of the most sure-fire ways to build a credible character in first-rate fiction of any type. This is particularly true of crime fiction. In a sentence or two an author can suggest an individual’s economic class, education, region of origin and age, simply by letting the character speak in his or her normal voice.

Say you are reading a book about the emergency room in a large county hospital. Which is more vivid: a nurse in scrubs who speaks in full sentences and uses a hemostat from the crash cart to stop a thoracic hemorrhage? Or a health care worker in a green uniform who stops the bleeding from a cut vein in the chest by using a clamp she takes off a roll-away table covered with medical gadgets?

Both describe the same thing; but by putting a character in “scrubs,” a particular type of medical uniform worn by members of a surgical team, the reader’s focus on the character is sharpened. The words "crash cart" and “hemostat” suggest specific types of medical equipment used by doctors and surgeons, and “thoracic hemorrhage” is medical jargon that identifies the character as somebody with technical training and knowledge of human physiology.

I would argue that the title of Edgerton's story, "The Bitch," has power specifically because it is drawn from the argot of prison inmates who have developed an extensive vocabulary that is both colorful and evocative. Used correctly and judiciously, this language -- much like artfully drawn regional dialect, contemporary slang or professional terminology -- flags the character's background, socialization and past experiences in a way that would require a vast amount of backstory

In this case, Les has written a crime novel that takes its title from prison argot. The title contains a double entendre because a guy coming looking at his third felony flop will  probably spend the rest of his life inside – which would be a bitch, even without the prison slang reference. 

It’s the kind of title every writer wishes he or she had come up with: it underscores the central conflict of the story and does so by using language in a way that enhances the yarn’s believability. Failing to give the title because it might offend some readers does a disservice to Les and to his readers. To my mind, it is like avoiding the use of the word in the text of the novel to begin with: a violation of one of the basic techniques of story telling.

I have been exploring the ways characters use language in fiction for some time because I consider it one of the critical elements in demonstrating a fictional character’s personality. What characters say is important, but the way they say it is often even more important.

Consider The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain: the first time Frank and Cora attempt to kill Nick the Greek, a policeman shows up unexpectedly. The cop’s attention is attracted to a kitten climbing on the side of the building next to the ladder that is a key part of Frank's and Cora's homicidal scheme.
Frank (John Garfield) shares a moment with Cora (Lana Turner) in The Postman Always Rings Twice
Grinning, the cop says, “I love a cat. They’re always up to something.”
What is Cain doing here? First, he is using this simple statement to build suspense and create fear on the part of the reader that Frank and Cora are about to be found out.

It is a suspenseful moment in the book. The policeman’s guard is clearly down. Rather than concentrating on the ladder, he notices the cat. But Frank and Cora aren't aware his distraction makes him less of a threat. All they know is that he is looking up at the tell-tale ladder and might become curious about what it is doing there.

The cat observation is almost a literary magic trick. Cain has his policeman character refer to the animal ungrammatically, making the reference seem more natural and believable than if he had used standard English class grammar:  “I love cats. They’re always up to something.”

But the policeman's comment is much more than just clever writing. The conflict in noun-pronoun number (cat/they’re) tells us a lot about the cop in only two short sentences: he is friendly, relatively inarticulate, probably minimallly educated, likes animals and sees the humor in their behavior. His brief statement shows he is probably not a threat to Frank and Cora, but his potential for discovering the ladder and the rest of their unsuccessful murder plan remains high, at least to them. This creates a dramatic tension that keeps the reader turning pages.
The dialog when Private Detective Sam Spade confronts Kasper Guttman’s “boy,” Wilmer Cook, in the hotel lobby in Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon has the same effect:
Spade (Humphrey Bogart) confronts Wilmer the gunsel (Elisha Cook Jr.) in the Maltese Falcon

Cook:  Keep on riding me and they're gonna be picking iron out of your liver.
Spade: The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter.

In this brief passage, Cook tries to intimidate Spade by portraying himself as a tough guy who has access to a gun. He strings together two trite phrases to threaten the detective with violence. Spade’s response is the verbal equivalent of a sneer, simultaneously showing him to be adept at cracking wise while making it clear he isn’t remotely frightened by Cook’s threats: in his rejoinder, Spade almost dares Cook to take a shot at him.
Both passages are examples of what the Russian literary analyst Mikhail Bakhtin calls "heteroglossia" -- finding a voice for characters that uses their language and the referents of their culture. 
Mikhail Bakhtin

By judiciously using grammar and syntax based on their education, social upbringing, involvement in organized religion, past employment, etc., their words seem to spring from their experience, their lifestyles.

“For any individual consciousness living in it, language is not an abstract system of normative forms but rather a concrete heteroglot conception of the world,” Bakhtin writes in his book, The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. “All words have the ‘taste’  of a profession, a genre, a tendency, a party, a particular work, a particular person, a generation, an age group, the day and hour. Each word tastes of the context and contexts in which it has lived its socially charged life; all words and forms are populated by intentions. Contextual overtones (generic, tendentious, individualistic) are inevitable in the word.”

This is no less true in crime fiction than any other literature in which the writer hopes to bridge the gap between reality and imagination. As Bakhtin writes, “The [writer] must assume a complete single-personed hegemony over his own language, he must assume equal responsibility for each one of its aspects and subordinate them to his own, and only his own, intentions. 

"Each word must express the [writer’s]meaning directly and without mediation; there must be no distance between the poet and his word. The meaning must emerge from language as a single intentional whole: none of its stratification, its speech diversity, versity, to say nothing of its language diversity, may be reflected in any fundamental way in his . . . work.”
Dashiell Hammett
This was precisely what Dashiell Hammett accomplished in his best stories. In his essay, "The Simple Art of Murder," Raymond Chandler, no slouch at the efficient use of language himself, singles out  Hammett as the crime writer who probably did more to reshape the genre than any other writer working in the hardboiled style.
Raymond Chandler
As Chandler writes: "Hammett gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse; and with the means at hand, not hand-wrought dueling pistols, curare and tropical fish. He put these people down on paper as they were, and he made them talk and think in the language they customarily used for these purposes." [Emphasis added].

“I doubt that Hammett had any deliberate artistic aims whatever,” Chandler writes. “He was trying to make a living by writing something he had firsthand information about. He made some of it up; all writers do; but it had a basis in fact; it was made up out of real things. The only reality the English detection writers knew was the conversational accent of Surbiton and Bognor Regis. If they wrote about dukes and Venetian vases, they knew no more about them out of their own experience than the well-heeled Hollywood character knows about the French Modernists that hang in his Bel-Air château or the semi-antique Chippendale-cum-cobbler's bench that he uses for a coffee table.
“Hammett took murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it into the alley; it doesn't have to stay there forever, but it looked like a good idea to get as far as possible from Emily Post's idea of how a well-bred debutante gnaws a chicken wing.”

George V. Higgins
The best crime writers know this. George V. Higgins 
(The Friends of Eddie Coyle), who, as a prosecutor, probably spent as much time with professional criminals as any other writer in the game, knew this. His dialog reads like the transcript of a Title III wiretap -- probably because he spent so much time reading intercepts of criminals' aimless chat while working organized crime cases.

Elmore Leonard admits that he learned the principle from Higgins. James Ellroy, at his peak, seems to be working from the same playbook as Higgins and Leonard.

A writer with courtroom experience like pulp-master Erle Stanley Gardner understood the principle very well. His stories about Lester Leith, a gentleman criminal patterned on Raffles, the cricket-playing English burglar -- are as artificial as the drawing room slaying novels Chandler decries in his "Simple Art of Murder" essay. On the other hand, his greatest creation, Perry Mason, comes across as a real defense attorney -- albeit one with a supernatural knack for clearing his clients.

Even lesser lights than Gardner -- the Scott Turows and John Grishams -- manage to inject life into characters when they are invested with authentic voices based on Bakhtin's heteroglossia concept. 

Scott Turow
The title of Edgerton’s book, makes effective use of the principle. A publication that would exclude the title from a review of the book is failing to recognize it's significance as one of the author's key literary tools. 

In order to avoid offense, it is actually hampering the author's ability to do the job; in a case like this, the piecemeal censorship of words and phrases can be as damaging as a book's outright suppression. 

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Better Distribution and Marketing Would Have Saved "The Salvation"

Zentropa Entertainment
(Director: Kristian Levring)

Mads Mikkelsen, Eva Green, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Jonathan Pryce.

Jon Jensen (Mads Mikkelsen) and his brother, Peter, (Mikael Persbrandt) are Danish soldiers who have immigrated to the West of the 1870s after the disastrous second Schleswig war, a struggle that ended with the Danish duchies of Schleswig and Holstein in German hands. 

War-weary after years of combat, the two men want only to be left alone to adapt to their new land. Unfortunately, the violence and corruption of the Old West offers hostile soil for the seeds of a new life.

Having built a home and farm on the dusty American wasteland, Mads sends for his wife and young son to join him.The reunion is brief and unhappy: a pair of drunken outlaws commandeer the stagecoach carrying them to their new home, murder the boy and rape and kill the wife. 

Mads, takes his revenge -- which puts him in the crosshairs of Henry Delarue (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a vicious and sadistic gunman who works for a shadowy oil combine that is trying to force out the settlers so it can seize the land for its wells.

Revenge follows revenge and Mads ends up in a showdown with the gunman, his entire murderous crew and Madelaine (Eva Green), the wife of the gunman who originally raped and killed Mikkelsen's wife.

The film is definitely a revisionist yarn with a noir twist. The capitalists who are the behind-the-scenes villains get off scot free, the townspeople in the rickety ghost town are cowards who spurn Mikkelsen and turn him over the gunman, even though they know his death will surely follow. The local sheriff, a preacher, is spineless; the town's mayor is a crook on the payroll of the oil tycoons. The only possible justice for Mikkelson is at gunpoint, and Mads, burning with cold rage, is ready, willing and able to be its instrument.

Part "Unforgiven," part "High Noon," part "Punisher," "The Salvation" is so hard-boiled you could slice it into potato salad. The film was made in South Africa but it's vast emptiness serves perfectly as a substitute for the America of the late 19th Century. You can seem to smell the dust and gunpowder, and almost feel the heat shimmering off the bubbling tar pools the capitalists covet. 

The cast is uniformly strong. Mikkelsen is perfect as a mild fellow whose life has been destroyed by evil men and who is intent on making all of them pay for it and Eva Green seethes with the emotion of a woman who has gone from being one type of prisoner to another.

Green's performance is particularly good, considering she does not utter a single word during the film: her character, Madelaine, was captured by Indians years earlier and had her tongue cut out by her captors. She was "rescued" by the gunman's rapist brother, a swinish brute with all the personality of a rattlesnake, and is taken over by the gunman after her "husband's" death. Delarue makes it clear he has secretly coveted her for years.

Eva Green
Madelaine's contempt for her husband, her hatred for his usurper brother and her suspicion of virtually everybody else in the film is made manifest despite her lack of speaking lines. She uses her eyes with remarkable subtlety, 

switching from a haughty glare to cunning shrewdness to surprising tenderness with a facility that lets the viewer know what is going on in her head at all times. 

If there is a weakness in the casting, it lies in having Morgan play the gunman. He turns in his best Powers Boothe imitation, but accept no substitutes: if you've seen Boothe as Cy Tolliver in "Deadwood," Curly Bill Brocius in "Tombstone" or Senator Roark in either of the Sin City films, you'll quickly realize his cocky, amoral arrogance would make the character Morgan plays much better.

Jeffrey Dean Morgan
This little bloodletter deserves a better fate than it got at the hands of its distributors. It was hardly in theaters long enough to notice and grossed only $5,000 in its opening, according to IMdB. With that pathetic a showing at the cashier's booth, needless to say, its debut week was also its closer. 

The producers didn't do much better with video distribution: it took months for the DVD and digital download to make their way to video release. 

This is a shame; The Salvation compares favorably to a lot of revisionist Westerns that have been released in recent years. It's frankly a hell of a lot better than films like Dawn Rider or Blackthorn.

The low def version is available for rental through Amazon for $3.99 or can be purchased from Hulu. I recommend it. Good westerns are hard to find and this one is definitely worth a look.