Getting Stabbed for Minbo

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?

W. David MARX
January 26, 2008

21 Responses

  1. Mulboyne Says:

    Not intended as a rebuttal, here’s a piece written by Simon Napier-Bell about record companies in Britain and America:

    http://observer.guardian.co.uk/omm/story/0,,2241544,00.html

  2. W. David MARX Says:

    The rebuttal to this non-rebuttal is that I have yet to find a major newspaper in Japan that would say the same sort of statements so boldly. And I have yet to see a Japanese analog of a book like Frederic Dannen’s “Hit Men” that talk about the mafia and payola in the U.S. music market.

  3. Daniel Says:

    Is Mecha-ike produced by the yakuza? Say it ain’t so!

    What can you read that will point fingers at Japanese entertaiment? Do you have any literature links or author recs?

  4. jasong Says:

    I mentioned your post to Mark Schilling, since he knew Itami.

  5. Mark Schilling Says:

    I asked Itami about the attack when I interviewed him in 1996 (the whole interview is in my book “Contemporary Japanese Film”). He told me “No matter how dangerous or frightening it may be, I have to say what I have to say.”

    Whatever you may think of the man’s films — I liked the early ones better than most of the latter ones — he had huge cojones.

    He committed suicide several months after that, jumping off the roof of the building where he had his office. There were rumors floating around that he had been pushed by gangsters, though I could never buy it. Yakuza hitmen don’t wait for their victims to write a lengthy suicide note, like Itami’s, let alone escort them up several floors and remove their shoes before heaving them over the side.

    That said, the rumors did indciate the heaviness of Itami’s crime in the eyes of his gangster enemies. He not only made them look like idiots, but gave their targets a well-researched, cleverly illustrated manual for out-witting them. Of all the directors who had made those hundreds of gang films before Itami’s, none had tried anything quite like it.

    The best general book on the yakuza by outlanders is Kaplan and Dubro’s “Yakuza,” which gives a detailed historical account of how the gangs infiltrated every area of society, from show business to politics at the highest level.

  6. jasong Says:

    Nobody’s taken up that mantle, that’s for sure.

    Dubro is from Toronto. He also wrote good books on Chinese and Italian organized crime.

  7. Aceface Says:

    Q.”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?”

    A.Ando Noboru
    http://ja.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E5%AE%89%E8%97%A4%E6%98%87

  8. Aceface Says:

    BTW,I just learned from Wiki,that Itami was godfathered by Nagata Masakazu,ez-Yakuza and the president of film studio Daiei which Itami joined in 1959(his birth name Ikeuchi Yoshihiro).

    That means Itami Juzo was godfathered by a real “Godfather”.

  9. W. David MARX Says:

    What can you read that will point fingers at Japanese entertaiment? Do you have any literature links or author recs?

    There’s not a whole lot. If you talk to industry insiders, read gossip mags, and wade through 2-ch, however, you start finding pieces of a narrative that has a lot of circumstantial evidence. Gunshots in production office window that go unreported by the mainstream media. The fact that Misora Hibari was managed by a member of the Yamaguchi-gumi. Most of the yakuza books mention involvement in the “entertainment industry” without ever naming names or organizations. For music, it’s rarely the label side – since they are affiliated with big listed firms. The talent jimusho are where you have to look, and there is almost zero available information on their finances since they intentionally stay so small in size.

    I asked Itami about the attack when I interviewed him in 1996…

    Thank you for your comments. (The Encyclopedia of Japanese Pop Culture was foundational for me.)

    I think my main point is this: knowing what happened to Itami before seeing this film, you expect the film to be a lot more “provocative.” It’s pretty straight-forward, showing how much the yakuza controlled their own public image in Japan at the time. Yes, the yakuza are bumbling but they look pretty good at what they do.

  10. Mulboyne Says:

    In determining how provocative the film was, it’s worth remembering what was happening at the time. The Anti-Boryokudan law was passed in May 1991 and came into operation in March 1992, the year Itami’s film was released.

  11. Aceface Says:

    “What can you read that will point fingers at Japanese entertaiment? Do you have any literature links or author recs?”

    There used to be a mag called “Uwasa no Shinso噂の真相”that writes all about these issues,whether they are accurate or not.(Kikko is said to be one of the ex-editor of this mag). You can still get piles of them in the second hand bookshops.

  12. W. David MARX Says:

    The problem about Uwasa no Shinso etc. is that all the real, useful information is side-by-side with sensationalist garbage. There is no way to verify anything, and since the mass media won’t work to talk about these issues, you are left wading in conjecture.

  13. Aceface Says:

    “since the mass media won’t work to talk about these issues, you are left wading in conjecture.”

    If the situation get worsened enough to have someone gets busted then we weigh in. But I think this is exceptional for J-media.

  14. W. David MARX Says:

    When Taira the boss of Rising Production (Amuro Namie’s production office) got busted for tax evasion, there was some reporting, but no one used it as an excuse to talk about similar practices rampant in the entire industry. He was reduced to be an “outlier.” Did they even report on the fact that he said something to the extent of “Ura-shakai money is critical for the music business” at his trial?

  15. Aceface Says:

    “Did they even report on the fact that he said something to the extent of “Ura-shakai money is critical for the music business” at his trial?”

    But that’s not even a news,Marxy.

    But I know what you mean. Part of the reason is probably because all of the major newspapers form media conglomerate with TV stations,thus keeping good relation with entertainment business is crucial to their business. That’s why they tend to see-no-evils.

    The M-1 comedy championship aired last months had Nakata Kaus as one of the juries. Which was met with surprise. Since Yoshimoto was under severe criticism for Nakata’s connection with underworld.

    I’m more interested in recent purging of Hosoki Kazuko from two primetime shows.
    Shukanshi like Gendai tells us she is connected with Yamaguchi-gumi.(Gendai has been reporting series of Hosoki related scandals since last year).
    But her connection with Yakuzas were no surpirse to anyone. I see some police arrests in near future.

  16. W. David MARX Says:

    “All of the major newspapers form media conglomerate with TV stations,thus keeping good relation with entertainment business is crucial to their business.”

    This is the reason. When you are making money, morals and ethics and legalities are thrown out the window.

    The other problem is the fundamental attitude of the Japanese media class that they have no obligation or duty to pass on the information they collect to the “masses.”

    But her connection with Yakuzas were no surpirse to anyone.

    She probably stopped making people money and then they realized what they knew the whole time.

  17. Aceface Says:

    ”This is the reason. When you are making money, morals and ethics and legalities are thrown out the window.”

    I’ve noticed that when I learned that the DEATH ROW RECORD is owned by Music Corporation of America…

    ”The other problem is the fundamental attitude of the Japanese media class that they have no obligation or duty to pass on the information they collect to the “masses.””。

    Now,you’re Noam Chomskying here.
    I know my place don’t do that very much and I’d always admit about that.
    But there are other media class that publish Shukanshis.Publisher like Kodansha and Shueisha are keen on printing these mockraking reports.That somehow compensate the loss of Paper/TV comglomarete and fill the vacuum within J-media matrix.

    “She probably stopped making people money and then they realized what they knew the whole time.”

    Her books still sell well in the bookstores.
    What I smell fishy about is the timing.Two programs from different stations being off the air at the same time? Never happened in my living memory….

    Trying to bring back the subject on line,I remember the assault on Itami was not particulary met with sympathy among the film critics here.

    There was this film critic “F” who is actually a lecturer of French in my university,really hated Itami’s works.
    When the news hit the air,he made the joke next day,”Man,why didn’t those thugs stubbed the blade a bit deeper”.

    Ofcourse it was pretty tasteless humour(and this dude was an avid fan of Kurosawas Kiyoshi,whom at the time was in a law suit with Itami),but we’ve seen Itami making films from the perspective of IRS investigators and now comes hunting Yakuza at the the time of Anti-Boryokudan law(there was a rally in Tokyo organized by then Issui-kai leader and media celebrity Suzuki Kunio,with families of Yakuzas marching along with far-left wing sects condemining authority can now tap telephone communications.Suzuki had called it as “Popular Front of Heisei”.)and naturally Itami was seen as somesort of liberal-turns-conservative who can’t adopt the tide of the age.That assessment was pretty much reflected upon his films too.(What kind of a guy would make a mainstream film with a title like”Ageman”,”lucky cunt” is what it means.Feminists weren’t very pleased and Itami was writing about those issues in the 70′s.)

    I was actually shocked to find out that Itmi was seen as some sort of dissident figure by the some in the U.S,when I was reading that Japan hand turned Washington insider,Stephen Clemmons’blog”WASHINGTON NOTE”.
    Clemmons is suspicious that Itami’s death was caused by the dark forces looming in Japanese society,aka The Yakuzas,not the conventional wisdom in Japan that his affair with college girl was revealed on Friday magazine and he commit suicide in protest.

  18. Mulboyne Says:

    Gendai reported on Hosoki as far back as 2006. Freelancer Atsushi Mizoguchi also wrote about her and was quoted in the Gendai series. Mizoguchi’s son was stabbed in the leg in an attack back in January 2006 after he was warned to “tone down” his coverage of the Yamaguchi gumi. I recall seeing an Asahi editorial which expressed outrage – the perpetrators were arrested but not those who had ordered the attack – But it was noteworthy that the paper failed to mention any of Mizoguchi’s allegations.

  19. W. David MARX Says:

    I sometimes think the government keeps the Yakuza intact as a social welfare program for the underclasses. What are you going to do with all these “non-Japanese” that are heavily discriminated against if they aren’t being entrepreneurs in areas that the government doesn’t have a problem with (like prostitution, kakuseizai, etc.) but needs to maintain “plausibly deniability” for international reasons?

    Also, Aceface, remember when you said that the murder in Nagasaki would lead to a huge crackdown on the Yamaguchi gumi? That didn’t happen. He was a “lone gunman.”

  20. Aceface Says:

    ”Aceface, remember when you said that the murder in Nagasaki would lead to a huge crackdown on the Yamaguchi gumi? That didn’t happen. He was a “lone gunman.””

    But he was a lone gunman.
    And the crackdown is still continuing.
    http://www.yosensha.co.jp/search.php?

    BTW,did you watch this?
    http://www.nhk.or.jp/special/onair/071111.html

    category=79&tag=7

  21. Aceface Says:

    o