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Drunken Angel: Yakuza, Social Structure, and Cross-Culturalism

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    lawless

    Maybe this topic has already been beaten to death, but seeing as several more films (Stray Dog and Ikiru come to mind) deal with the yakuza, or contain characters who are part of the yakuza, I thought it would be helpful to start a thread raising, and maybe eventually answering, some questions about the yakuza.

    1. What are their social origins? I’ve seen some suggestion that some were ronin, but more frequently that they came from lower-status, outcast social groups, such as the burakumin (previously and derogatorily known as eta) and ethnic Koreans, who couldn’t aspire to advance under the normal social structure.

    2. Are they really feudalistic? Certainly loyalty is emphasized, but it seems to me that the yakuza may have thought of themselves as creating a wholly new, modern, and better social structure.

    3. Given what yakuza do, how is the phenomenon of gangsterism similar across cultures and how is it different? How are Kurosawa’s movies about the yakuza (or anyone else’s, for that matter) similar to movies about Western gangsters (e.g., the Mafia)? How are they different? Do those differences say more about the root cultures or the moviemakers — or both?

    Please excuse all the questions; I’m starting to realize how much I’ve internalized the Socratic method of learning to which I was subjected in law school.

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    Ugetsu

    There is a great repeating motif in the Sopranos where Silvio Dante does his impersonation of one of the gangsters in The Godfather. The obvious message being that gangster sub-culture is often itself formed by popular cultures portrayal of those very gangsters. I’ve no doubt that this applies to the Yakuza as much as it does to the Italian mafia or the Traids and so on. And of course these perceptions are cross-fertilized – for example, the habit of mid-20th century Triad gangs of aping the clothes of the James Cagney gangster movies they would have seen (Stephen Chow satirises this beautifully in Kung Fu Hustle).

    I did read somewhere that a surprising number of Yakuza are buraku, which strongly suggests that their identification with the Samurai is misplaced. I think they are largely an urban phenomenon which I think would suggest that they can’t be traced directly back to ronin. I would have thought therefore that their society, supposed rules of honour and so on is a contrivance, based on a elevated sense of self worth.

    I think Kurosawa was way ahead of his time in treating the Yakuza seriously, neither treating them as criminals to be wiped out, or as super cool outsiders. I suspect though he was more interested in using them as a metaphor for Japanese power structures as a whole – which links me back to the Godfather, as I often wonder if Coppola took his idea of using the mafia as a symbol of American capitalism (or so he has said was his intention) from The Bad Sleep Well.

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    cocoskyavitch

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    Vili Maunula

    You have probably all read the relevant Wikipedia article. I have no idea how accurate it is, but it seems to answer at least some of the questions posed by lawless.

    1) The article mentions that the tekiya, one component of early yakuza, were allowed to carry a short sword. Could this be the origin of the idea that the early yakuza were ronin?

    2) The yakuza social structure apparently has its origins in a traditional Japanese hierarchical structure.

    3) Yakuza are not as secretive as their western counterparts. A good example is how some of the leading yakuza houses announced after the recent earthquake that they will be sending aid to the affected areas in materials and manpower.

    The question about gangster films across cultures and film makers is interesting. Unfortunately, my knowledge is extremely limited there.

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    lawless

    Vili

    1) Possibly. I’m also influenced by the idea (or fact, probably) suggested in Seven Samurai that some ronin had a tendency to slip further down the social structure and become bandits. While they almost certainly didn’t dominate the yakuza, I have to believe that some ronin wound up there if for no other reason than that the people of lower social status actually running things would welcome their skills and connection to bushido as long as they were just a sprinkling and acknowledged their fealty to the bosses and that for some ronin, being part of the yakuza probably made the difference between a decent existence and starvation.

    2) Whose origins trace back in part to the lord/samurai dynamic. This is why I think the yakuza probably think (or thought) of themselves as improving on, or moderninzing, the samurai ethos. It makes crime seem like a noble pursuit.

    3) Having grown up in a community in which Italians were the largest ethnic group and in which the Mafia flourished, I question how secretive Western, or at least American, gangsters are. Who they were and what they did was well-known in the community, although they weren’t involved in anything worse than numbers running, gambling, and prostitution. But they aren’t organized into businesses quite the same way as the yakuza are; their fronts are small, closely-held businesses. (Or, until recently, labor unions.)

    Since the only Western gangster movies I’ve seen are the original Godfather movie and Married to the Mob, I’m not in an especially good position to comment either.

    Coco – I believe that’s the kind of triad to which Ugetsu refrerred.

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    Ugetsu

    Lawless

    Who they were and what they did was well-known in the community, although they weren’t involved in anything worse than numbers running, gambling, and prostitution. But they aren’t organized into businesses quite the same way as the yakuza are; their fronts are small, closely-held businesses.

    I don’t think the Yakuza are as uniquely Japanese as they claim. I recall a while back reading about an outbreak of gang violence in an English city which was blamed by the media on the police failing to clamp down on ‘gangsters’. A criminologist wrote that the reason for the outbreak of violence was not police failure, but the exact opposite. They had been too successful in breaking up crime gangs, but in doing so, they also broke up the bonds that the gangs had with the regular community, so there was nobody around to stop idiot 19 year olds going around with guns shooting each other.

    In other words, all successful gangs insinuate themselves into local communities in one way or another through doing ‘good works’. At a lower level, they maintain order in their neighbourhood – making it plain that petty crime or vandalism is not acceptable where they live. A friend of mine, for example, lives in a small street in a rough part of Dublin, but nobody locks their doors or cars. A local hood (who my friend says is very charming and friendly) lives on the street, so local thieves simply know its too dangerous to go near the area. They ensure that violence is kept between gang members, and even then, its kept quiet (people simply disappear). With the mafia, they often use their wives as conduits for giving money to the Church or to charity, making them indispensable to legitimate local religious or voluntary groups. On a more organised level, they insinuate themselves into whole industries – notoriously with gambling, but also in waste disposal, retail, etc. This acts both to launder money, but also to insinuate themselves into society in a way that makes them very difficult to root out.

    If you look to the roots of gangsters, I think it is almost always marginalised peoples (poor immigrants, etc), who find that gangsterism is a way to gain respect and power. You could argue that the only countries where gangsters don’t thrive, are in totalitarian states where the government sees them as a direct competitor, rather than just a nuisance. I was reading a while ago about the incredible ruthlessness shown by the Chinese communist party in eliminating Triad influence in Macau. They would not tolerate their presence in a way in which, say, a certain amount of mafia influence is vaguely tolerated in the US or Italy.

    This is a roundabout way of saying that I don’t think its useful to look at the Yakuza as some sort of special Japanese organisation. They follow very much the pattern of gangsterism that can be identified in all sorts of societies, at different levels. I think the vague hints of samurai background are little different from Mafia groups giving themselves honorary or military titles (like ‘captains’).

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    Ugetsu

    Incidentally, I would add that I think one of the most acute and least understood elements of Kurosawa’s films featuring gangsters is how he quite deliberately humanizes them in a way which means we cannot admire them. Most films about gangsters either show them as evil characters to be blown away by the hero, or they drape them with a sort of outlaw romance. Or alternately they are used as metaphors for one purpose or another.

    Kurosawa I think addresses them directly for what they are – damaged marginalized individuals who use violence to achieve what they are incapable of achieving through other ways. Sometimes they are likable as individuals, but they can never be admired for what they stand for. And a constant theme of his films of course is that when a society allows gangsters to infiltrate, it is always a disaster.

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    lawless

    Ugetsu – My sense that the yakuza isn’t some special snowflake but rather is pretty similar to gangster culture and practices around the world is part of the reason I raised the cross-cultural questions. They are definitely normalized; when the head of our local Mafia group at home, known as Fat Tony, died, people, including local political leaders, turned out for his funeral in droves. The man, now deceased, who as mayor had been responsible for a cleanup of the city, and later was a long-term Congressional representative, probably turned over in his grave.

    You’re right about Kurosawa humanizing but not glorifying them. Mifune is a strong presence in Drunken Angel, although I find Shimura’s character more interesting, but he’s not someone you’d want to emulate. He looks wild and crazy when he’s sick out of his mind, and his end isn’t exactly desirable, either. Kurosawa’s also honest about the benefits of the yakuza system; think of Matsunaga’s little entourage and his dishy girlfriend and her apartment, or the privilege and freedom gangsters enjoyed in One Wonderful Sunday.

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    Ugetsu

    Lawless

    and his dishy girlfriend and her apartment,

    She was called Nanae I think? I found her quite an interesting character. I think she stood out as gangsters molls are usually portrayed as quite passive, but what I found striking was that she was very much an enabler. She deliberately stoked up the rivalry between Matsunaga and Okada and seemed to be provoking them into greater violence (at least implicitly). She was both a prize for the gangsters, and an active participant and manipulator.

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    lawless

    Ugetsu – You’re right, her name is Nanae. I’m fascinated by the dress she wears the first time we see her. It’s very striking and modern.

    While I don’t think she’s invested with as much agency as Sanada’s patient, the barmaid (who acts on her own account), or even Miyo, seeing as she owes her position in life to men, she is, as you note, less a passive arm decoration than most. Her apartment is also interestingly decorated.

    I also found the Greek chorus of dance hall girls amusing, especially since they would probably gossip like that in real life, and his opening the movie with a brief view of a trio of pan pan girls, whom we never see again, intriguing.

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    Vili Maunula

    Ugetsu: I recall a while back reading about an outbreak of gang violence in an English city which was blamed by the media on the police failing to clamp down on ‘gangsters’. A criminologist wrote that the reason for the outbreak of violence was not police failure, but the exact opposite. They had been too successful in breaking up crime gangs, but in doing so, they also broke up the bonds that the gangs had with the regular community, so there was nobody around to stop idiot 19 year olds going around with guns shooting each other.

    That’s quite a fascinating thesis!

    Ugetsu: You could argue that the only countries where gangsters don’t thrive, are in totalitarian states where the government sees them as a direct competitor, rather than just a nuisance.

    I can think of another country type with relatively few gangsters or gangster-like organisations: countries with strong welfare systems, and I’m particularly thinking about Scandinavian countries here. The welfare safety net is so good that it takes a hell of a lot of effort for you to fall off of it.

    Or at least this used to be the case. There may be a slow change for the worse, however. The blame tends to be put on foreigners, especially the Russian mafia and immigrants. The Russian mafia, I suppose, finds these societies good places to do money laundering. Meanwhile, immigrants while still enjoying the benefits of the social security do nevertheless often end up marginalised, unable to find employment or much else to do, either. In their case, it is not financial deprivation but social deprivation (and the prejudices of the society around them) which may lead to criminal behaviour.

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    Ugetsu

    Vili

    I can think of another country type with relatively few gangsters or gangster-like organisations: countries with strong welfare systems, and I’m particularly thinking about Scandinavian countries here. The welfare safety net is so good that it takes a hell of a lot of effort for you to fall off of it.

    I was going to mention Scandinavia, but I was wondering if the prevalence of so much good Scandinavian crime fiction means there is something going on I don’t know about…

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    lawless

    Ugetsu – Not all criminals are gangsters — in fact, much crime is disorganized and solitary, not organized and group-oriented in nature — so it’s entirely possible for there to be a low incidence of gangsterism and yet for crime to be plentiful. I’m afraid, human nature being what it is (and it hasn’t changed much over the millennia, it seems, nor do I expect it to), crime, including that which is exciting enough to write novels about, will always be with us. 😐

    I realize your comment may be at least partially joking or ironic, but I wanted to make the point anyway.

    Vili – I don’t know enough about Scandinavian (or Nordic) societies to have an opinion about their relative susceptibility to gangsterism, but your reference to the Russian mob rings true to me. If, as I suspect based on past history of Russian influence and even domination in Finland (not sure about Norway, and I doubt this applies to Denmark or Sweden), there’s a sizeable Russian population and a steady stream of Russian immigrants, I would expect the Russian mob to root and flourish irrespective of local customs, laws, or social nets. Certainly the Russian mob features in police procedural shows here in the US at least as often, if not more often, than the Mafia, and it’s always depicted as extremely brutal and bloodthirsty and even more highly disciplined than the Mafia.

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    Vili Maunula

    Ugetsu: I was going to mention Scandinavia, but I was wondering if the prevalence of so much good Scandinavian crime fiction means there is something going on I don’t know about…

    You are sort of on the right track there, I think. There is relatively little visible crime in Scandinavia, and there is quite little corruption, but there is also certainly something going on, on a social level. Within families, small towns, and other social groups.

    lawless: I don’t know enough about Scandinavian (or Nordic) societies to have an opinion about their relative susceptibility to gangsterism, but your reference to the Russian mob rings true to me. If, as I suspect based on past history of Russian influence and even domination in Finland (not sure about Norway, and I doubt this applies to Denmark or Sweden), there’s a sizeable Russian population and a steady stream of Russian immigrants, I would expect the Russian mob to root and flourish irrespective of local customs, laws, or social nets.

    There actually hasn’t traditionally been a major Russian population in Finland, although ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union, more Russians (typically Ingrians) have moved to Finland. Some 55,000 of them now apparently live in the country (source).

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