After watching Itami Jūzō’s 1992 film Minbo for the first time, I have a hard time believing that this somewhat light-hearted pop movie enraged the Goto Gumi yakuza organization enough to make them go out of their way to viciously attack Itami within inches of his life. The movie has none of the artistic aspirations of his other masterpieces Tampopo or The Funeral, nor even reaches into Oliver Stone “speak truth to power” territory. It’s little more than a well-made Japanese mainstream film using the yakuza as an obvious foil for corporate comedy.
But in showing that simple legal and procedural maneuvers can basically neutralize the whole yakuza extortion racket, Minbo went beyond sheer persuasion politics to provide a textbook-like case study for later imitation. I am sure most thought, “Hey, it’s just a movie! Stopping the yakuza couldn’t possibly be that easy! These legal things must be fiction.” But then the Goto Gumi went and stabbed the director! “Okay, I guess he was probably onto something. Thanks for clearing that up, yakuza.” Itami had the last laugh, however, when the government went all out and made it much more difficult for organized crime to exist out in the open. Just as explicitly stated in the film, when the victim forces the yakuza to actually go through with violence, the police/state will finally have a chance to crack down.
So, ten points for Itami (R.I.P.), but there is still more work to be done. Minbo defines yakuza in the most obvious way: as those guys in ridiculous orange suits and bad haircuts and garish verb tenses. The scariest thing about modern organized crime in Japan is that their capital and managers have perfectly seeped into normal society as to hide all external evidence of their existence. The modern day soldier wears sweater vests, drives a Volvo station wagon, and manages a hipster art gallery. Better than roaming screaming thugs bothering hotel staff, I guess, but the new breed still control gallery spaces, talent management, TV casting, street fashion, and all sorts of other cultural arenas for the entire country. But hey, it’s not like you can get a movie made about how the yakuza run the entertainment industry in Japan. Who would star in it?