The Image of the Yakuza
The Yakuza are an organized crime syndicate based in Japan. Unlike other groups of organized crime in the world, such as the mafias of Italy or the cartels of Spain, the Yakuza did not conduct their operations in secret. In fact, the original members of the Yakuza were easily recognizable owing to the way they walked and talked, in addition to their substantial use of tattoos. This blatant approach towards crime popularized the Yakuza and they became a favorite subject of discussion and analysis in literature and film. This paper will attempt to elucidate the image of the Yakuza as demonstrated in the film 1975 Cops vs. Thugs. Set in 1963, the film demonstrates an evolved image of the Yakuza, where the blatant appearance of the original affiliates has been replaced with a more business-like image, comprising of tailor-made suits and crew cut haircuts. This paper will employ film analysis techniques to demonstrate that the Yakuza of the mid-20th century had evolved into businessmen with economic prospects and political affiliations.
Cops vs. Thugs is a film by Kinji Fukusaku set in the fictional town of Kurashima where two rival gangs of the Yakuza, Ohara and Kawade, engage in gruesome war for local supremacy. The rivalry began when Police Detective Tokomatsu Kuno, in association with Ohara leader, Kenji Hirotani, conspired to seize a piece of land acquired by the Kawade gang. When members of the Ohara gang enter into a fight with a truck driver working for the Kawade gang, a war between the two gangs erupts. This causes the Police Administration to appoint Lieutenant Shoichi Kaida to command the crackdown against the Yakuza gangs. Kaida proceeds to order members fellow police offers to cut off their ties with the Yakuza. This places Detective Kuno at a difficult position, caught in between his duty as a police officer and his friendship to his Yakuza affiliates. Although the characters and locations depicted in the film are fictional, the audience is informed that the events are based on a true story.
While the Yakuza are known to be criminal gangs of organized crime, the Japanese film industry has not always portrayed this image of them. During the Silent Film era, Japanese films depicted the Yakuza as heroic outlaws who led lonely and sympathetic lives, longing to return to their societies. This image of the yakuza faded with the onset of World War II, and by the 1950s, Yakuza films were ‘Borderless Action’ films where the protagonist was torn between desire and duty, (Varese 107). It was not until the 1970’s that a new type of Yakuza films appeared known as the Jitsurokueiga, which when translated means, ‘actual record films.’ Unlike the pre-World War films, these movies did not attempt to portray the Yakuza as honorable Samurai warriors. Instead, they showed the Yakuza for the ruthless and egocentric thugs that they were. Many of the Jitsurokueiga, such as Cops vs. Thugs, were based on real stories, with fictional characters and locations for the purposes of storytelling.
I chose this film because it features the Jitsurokueiga approach to Yakuza filmmaking, which seeks to portray the Yakuza as accurately as they occurred. For instance, the relationship between the Yakuza and the police was not uncommon. Also, incidences of war between rival gang members affiliated to Yakuza happened in real life. What is more, towards the beginning of the film, audiences are informed that the events depicted are based on actual happenings. For these reasons, I believe that this film will provide an accurate portal of the Yakuza image.
The Image of the Yakuza
Many scholars agree that the Yakuza have been in existence since the early 17thcentury, during the Tokugawa period. Originally, the Yakuza conducted their operations in the open. Yakuza members could be easily identified through the substantial number of tattoos on their bodies and their use of slang when talking. The tattooing culture can be traced back to the military era in Japan, where military dictators used tattoos to mark the bodies of criminals. The self-afflicted tattoos were a statement that the Yakuza accepted their role as criminals, (Hill, 99). It was also possible to identify a Yakuza member through their self- amputated fingers. Self-amputation was used as a form of apology among members of the Yakuza, and also as a show of loyalty.
On the epoch of the 20th century, the Yakuza underwent a radical transformation. Affiliate members abandoned the conspicuous image that had initially defined them, in favor of tailor-made suits. They began to look more like businessmen than gang members and this image was further augmented when they began to work in office buildings. Other members took up public office and garnered political influence. With the help of the police, they ventured into activities of extortion and land grabbing, which was far more lucrative than their original activates of small-time robberies (Higgins, 197). In spite of these advancements, the Yakuza continued to attract public attention through violent rivalries between gangs, which caused many casualties. This led to a massive crackdown on the Yakuza where many members were arrested.
Cops vs. Thugs is a film that perfectly illustrates this evolved image of the Yakuza, as will be demonstrated in the following scene analysis:
Ten minutes into the film, we are introduced to Masaichi Tomoyasu, who is an affiliate of the Kawade gang. Tomoyasu is seated in a group of prominent men, including the Mayor of Kurashima at the Harem club. Music plays in the background while people dance under the red neon light. Tomoyasu and his men are in the company of young and beautiful women, with bottles of champagne and liquor around their table. Cigarette smoke wafts in the air adding to the night-club ambience. This is a crowded scene and a lot of activity is going on. However, the camera is focused on Tomoyasu, who wears a light gray tailor-made suit under a white shirt, fastened with a striped tie. He is also wearing large reading glasses, which gives him the appearance of a lawyer or an accountant. Only his demeanor betrays this assumption.
When a fellow Kawade operative introduces Mariko, a new hostess, to Tomoyasu, he immediately starts touching her, raising her dress and asking indecent questions. While he does this, the men around him laugh in amusement. Soon, their joy turns sour when two men from the Ohara gang snatch Mariko away from Tomoyasu accusing her of disloyalty. This is quickly followed by a raid where men with construction headwear rush in from all corners shooting and fighting with wooden batons. The music stops and chaos erupts as men fight while women scream and run. The camera quickly cuts in between scenes of men shooting, throwing blows and falling. Tomoyasu and his companions huddle together in a corner shouting for someone to call the police. When they finally arrive, Tomoyasu and his friends escape to safety in one of the police cars. The raid is later attributed to the Ohara gang.
In this scene, the audience is introduced to the evolved image of the Yakuza. Tomoyasu’s meeting with prominent members is reminiscent of a business meeting among men outside the office. The camera’s unflinching focus on Tomoyasu shows that he is the most important character at the club. The drinks that litter the table indicate the vast amount of wealth possessed by the Yakuza. The women who entertain these men are a further indication of their influence and power. Tomoyasu and the men around him are all dressed in tailors made suits, signaling to the evolved image of the Yakuza, to a more business-like appearance.
The red neon lights in the background create an atmosphere of imminent danger. The guitar and saxophone music in the background is upbeat but dimmed down, acting as a precursor for the events to come. When members of the Ohara gang finally raid the club, the music stops. All that can be the head is the blows of men, the screams of women and the blast of guns. This puts the audience at the edge of their seats while enhancing the authenticity of the scene. When the police finally arrive, Tomoyasu and his men enter a police car and drive off to safety. This shows the affiliation between the Yakuza and the police.
Twenty minutes into the film, we are taken to a scene featuring Ohara gang members. Following the Harem incident, a meeting is called where one member from the gang must take the fall for the damages incurred by the Kawadegang. The volunteer is required to prison for three years as retribution. In this scene, Police Detective Kuno sits next to acting-Ohara leader, Kenji Hirotani, while they request for volunteers. Hirotani's right-hand man is the first to volunteer, but he is rejected because his status makes him too important. Eventually, Kyuichi Okimoto, a tough and prominent gang member, is chosen to take the punishment on behalf of the gang. He willfully accepts and is rewarded with the company of young women.
As with the scene at the Harem club, the Ohara gang members are seated around a table full of liquor. They smoke and drink, but, unlike the scene at Harem, their mood is sombre because they are elaborating on a serious matter. Some men stand around the table, and behind them are women, who exist for their pleasure. No music plays in the background. The drunk men are all dressed in tailor-made suits and they talk in loud and firm voices, like businessmen. The next scene features Hirotani in the company of a young woman. In this scene, it is possible to see the heavy tattooing that covers his body. It is worth mentioning that it is not possible to view these tattoos when Hirotani is wearing a suit.
A lot of similarities can be drawn between this scene and the scene at the Harem nightclub. First, in both scenes, the gang members sit around a table full of liquor. Seating around a table is a demonstration of unity and togetherness among the gang members. Also, both scenes depict the gang members in tailor-made suits and surrounded by beautiful young women. This is the evolved image of the Yakuza. It is a portal of power, wealth and influence. What is more, positioning Police Detective Kunonext to the gang leader shows the affiliation between the police and the Yakuza.
In this scene, the members of the Ohara gang are looking for a volunteer to take the fall for the Harem incident. Hirotani's right-hand man is the first to volunteer, demonstrating his loyalty to his gang and his leader. It is important to note that loyalty was very important among the Yakuza. When Okimoto is chosen to go to jail on behalf of the gang, he accepts without hesitation. This is also an indication of loyalty. The fact that his reward is a young woman demonstrates the level of misogyny existed among the Yakuza. In the next scene, the audience is able to witness the heavy tattooing that covers Hirotani’s body. This is also characteristic of members of the Yakuza gangs.
The Yakuza are an organized crime syndicate in Japan, whose origins can be traced back to the early 17th century. During the Silent Film era, the Japan film industry depicted the Yakuza as heroic outlaws, undergoing inner conflict and longing to return to their societies. This was a false image of the Yakuza that faded with the onset of World War II. It was not until the 1970’s that the Japanese film industry began to capture correct images of the Yakuza in what was known as the Jitsurokueiga. Cops vs. Thugs is a product of this era that captures the evolved image of the Yakuza as it existed in the 20th century. Through the scene analysis, this paper is able to capture this evolved image as depicted in the film.
Fukusaku, Kinji, director. Cops vs. Thugs. Toei Company, Ltd, 1976
Higgins, Silke. "Yakuza Past, Present and Future: The Changing Face of Japan's Organized Crime Syndicates." Themis: Research Journal of Justice Studies and Forensic Science 2.1 (2014): 190-207.
Hill, Peter. "The changing face of the Yakuza." Global Crime6.1 (2004): 97-116.
Varese, Federico. "The secret history of Japanese cinema: The Yakuza movies." Global Crime 7.1 (2006): 105-124.