Friday, January 14, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: The Yakuza Movie Book: A Guide to Japanese Gangster Films

The Yakuza Movie Book: A Guide to Japanese Gangster Films

Author: Mark Schilling

Publisher: Stone Bridge Press

335 pages

ISBN: 1880656760

Published: 2003

Reviewed by Eric Evans

If you love Japanese film you’re probably well acquainted with the writing of Mark Schilling (below left), film critic for The Japan Times. His weekly reviews and occasional interviews with filmmakers are a must read around these parts, owing to his reliably good taste and clear, smart, compelling writing. He has arguably the sweetest gig in all of J-film criticism, and he makes the most of it.

Given the volume of work he produces and his passion for the films themselves, it’s no surprise that he has books focusing on specific genres on the market. His “No Borders, No Limits: Nikkatsu Action Cinema” is an invaluable guide to the sharp, stylish films of Nikkatsu’s pre-pink prime. And though it covers a much broader topic, “The Yakuza Movie Book: A Guide to Japanese Gangster Films” manages to touch on the major players and films. Broken up into three main sections, the book profiles and interviews directors, then actors, then supplies many dozens of reviews of titles from the popular (“Fudoh”, “Battles Without Honor and Humanity”) to the virtually unknown outside of Japanese video stores (“Level”, “Minazuki”). If you’re unfamiliar with Schilling’s reviewing style, he’s fair to genre films in that he judges them by what they are and what they’re supposed to be. In many cases he supplies substantive story summaries, which is helpful with the more obscure titles. If you enjoy the genre, the book will send you off to hunt for many, many movies.

For me, the meat of the book is in the interviews. Schilling asks the questions a movie fan would, eschewing anything needlessly personal or gossipy and sticking to the work. He obviously knows how much he can push, and while he doesn’t seek to needle anyone he does put his subjects—the directors especially—in a position to open up. Teruo Ishii flatly stating that Takeshi Kitano’s films are “a sham” that “aren’t going to last” might be the sexy quote, but Takashi Miike’s interview is a real eye-opener. The usual self deprecation masking a clear distaste for Japanese film industry status quo may not be much of a surprise, but his recognition of the ephemeral quality of western interest in J-film was, as was his assertion that Japanese film producers should be doing much more to capitalize on that interest while it exists. I didn’t think of Miike as some head-in-the-clouds dreamer, but I found the degree of his savvy and self-awareness a bit of a shock. Perhaps that explains his affiliation with a production shingle as single-minded as Sushi Typhoon? As a going-away present, Schilling includes a number of back-of-the-book goodies such a buying guide to locate many of the films discussed in the book, a bibliography that has me planning weeks’ worth of microfiche scouring, even a glossary of terms commonly used in reviews and discussion of Yakuza culture.

“The Yakuza Movie Book” isn’t a scholarly work immersing its subjects in sociopolitical context and demanding frequent flipping to endnotes. If anything it errs on the populist side, assuming the reader might have an interest in the subject yet not an encyclopedic knowledge of it. It’s a smooth and smart read, and owing to its segmentation can be read all at once or in very short bursts, particularly good for bedside reading. Schilling has me excited to see new films and given me food for thought when revisiting classics of the genre, and there’s really no better recommendation for the book than that.

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