by Chris MaGee
What do you think of when you hear "yakuza"? Well, this being the J-Film Pow-Wow the films of directors like Kinji Fukasaku, Takeshi Kitano and Takashi Miike probably pop to mind as would the performances of actors such as Akira Kobayashi, Bunta Sugawara, Ken Takakura and Riki Takeuchi all of whom made a career out of playing these tattooed gangsters. Some of you out there, though, will think of the real-life yakuza, Japan's 84,000 member strong criminal underground who control the country's gambling, prostitution, extortion, and illegal drug industries. Obviously it's hard to come to any exact figure, but it's estimated that the yakuza's minimum annual income tops out at $50 billion (that's minimum). What's the maxim of every successful businessman? Diversify of course, and the yakuza is no different in that regard. With that kind of cash flow why limit yourself to just the black market when you can go gray market or totally above board with everything from construction companies and restaurants to real estate holdings and even Japan's banking industry. Again, this being the J-Film Pow-Wow one business that the yakuza have been a part of from it very beginning was Japan's film industry, an endeavor that has often blurred the lines between onscreen fiction and cold hard reality.
At the very beginning of 20th-century the Japanese viewed the still nascent film industry as being far from reputable in large part due to the extensive involvement of yakuza gangs in its financing and operation. Japanese cinema progenitors like Shozo Makino (1878-1929), Japan's very first film director, had close ties with the yakuza. Makino's mother owned and operated the Senbonza kabuki theatre in Kyoto, which was backed by her relatives in the Senbon-gumi, a prominent yakuza gang. It was at this same theatre that Makino shot his first films and it was from its troupe of kabuki actors that Makino found Matsunosuke Onoe, Japan's first major screen idol.
The yakuza just didn't form allegiences with individuals. They also funneled large amounts of cash into the first Japanese motion picture studios, starting in 1912 with the Nippon Katsudō Shashin, later shortened to Nikkatsu. From the very beginning the studios adopted the yakuza's, shall we say, creative book-keeping methods, what the Japanese call donburi kanjo. Financial numbers were logged, but they may or not be the actual numbers. Of course cooking the books, as we so fondly refer to it here in North America, is hardly just used by those in organized crime, but keeping people on staff to rough people up is, and this was another practice of the early studios. One example of this occurred in the 1930s during the fierce competition that was then taking place between Shochiku and Toho. One of Shochiku's prominent jidai-geki actors ended up with a knife stuck in him after he tried to defect to the rival studio. Eventually the reputation of the film industry in Japan improved with an influx of higher class university graduates like Tadashi Imai, Satsuo Yamamoto and a young fellow by the name of Akira Kurosawa starting in as directors, but the influence of the yakuza, while it may have become more discrete, continued for decades to come.
With the advent of television in the 1960s the major studios had to work out way to keep people coming to the theatres. At Toei this was done by producing a string of ninkyo eiga, or "chivalry films" about honourable yakuza. Quite a few of these from Kosaku Yamashita's "Red Peony Gambler" (1968) right up to Kinji Fukasaku's "Sympathy for the Underdog" (1971) were made under the auspices of famed produced, Koji Shundo (above left), who was also a former yakuza. Meanwhile another way of capturing ticket sales was the shift into pinku eiga, or softcore sex films. One of the more extreme director of pinku eiga, Giichi Nishihara, headed up his own independent production company alled Aoi Eiga, or "Blue Films" which was started with a major infusion of cash from yakuza from Osaka.
In terms of present day yakuza involvement in the film industry you need look no further than Tadamasa Goto (above right), the former head of the violent Goto-gumi faction of the largest yakuza clan in Japan, the Yamaguchi-gumi. Goto and his organization were not only involved in illegal operations, but also funneled money into a number of legitimate businesses, one of which was Burning Productions, an independent talent agency and production company which represented stars like Eiji Wentz, Teppei Koike, Miho Nakayama, and Shohei Miura, and produced such films as Naoto Takenaka's 1997 film "Tokyo Biyori" starring Tadanobu Asano and Tatsuya Hagishima's 2008 film "Kids" starring Chiaki Kuriyama. It was partially Goto's high profile hob-nobbing with movie stars and entertainers that would be his downfall though. Last year former yakuza eiga superstar and current enka superstar Akira Kobayashi and four other singers were banned from appearing on Japan's national broadcaster NHK after it was discovered that they performed at a birthday bash for Goto. It was shortly thereafter that Goto was asked to leave the Yamaguchi-gumi for having "attracted unwanted media attention".
It's highly doubtful that the film industry in Japan and the yakuza will ever part ways entirely. Whether you like it or not, the yakuza are an entrenched part of the Japanese economy and films require money and large amounts of it to make, and as long as being envolved in the film and entertainment industry remains a lucrative arrangement for the yakuza they'll remain in the game.