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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. 

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