Archive for the ‘Japan Post WW11’ Category

Tokyo Underworld by Robert Whiting

June 15, 2013

Tokyo Underworld Robert Whiting 1999 reprinted 2012 Constable:London

Last entry in the Blue Sky series and it promises to be fun to write. Also the perfect read with the perfect racy cover for when you take your next flight. Have fond memories of good reads while scarfing down in-flight hospitality: Ivan’s War: Catherine Merridale, Anne Applebaun: Gulag: A History, Tim Weimer: Legacy of Ashes: A History of the CIA, etc.

Well researched social history provides the colour and detail which fits somewhere between serious biography and big picture histories of institutions and government policy. It has the ability to fill-in the colour palette during a slice in time, and the capacity to describe a cultural formation during periods of stasis and/or rapid social change.

Amazon provides a host of reviews/overviews, some of which are hilarious, HERE and you can catch Chapter One HERE.

Have lesser review ambitions here, since I’m focussing on this guy and showing how he triggered Japans industrial ascendency in the world of electronics, namely in the shape of the television set.

Rikidozan demonstrating his spectacular karate chop.

Rikidozan demonstrating his spectacular karate chop.

The Destroyer grovels for mercy.

The Destroyer grovels for mercy.

“The Destroyer first gained popularity in Japan when he went there in 1963 as WWA (Worldwide Alliance) Champion and wrestled Rikidozan, the father of pro-wrestling in Japan. To this day, it was the highest TV rating in commercial television in Japan with 70 million people watching the match”.

To capture the real significance of wrestling as a morality play – theatre which enabled the Japanese to cast aside their self-loathing and humiliation post-1945 – we have to go back to 1954 when Rikidozan and his tag partner Kimura meet the truly large, grappling Sharpe Brothers before a crowd of 20,000 in a stadium near Shimbashi Station. Tokyo came to a virtual halt as other crowds gathered in front of small black and white tvs mounted on trucks.

Rikidozan involved in some close quarter armpit sniffing with the beef fed Sharpe brothers.

Rikidozan involved in some close quarter armpit sniffing with the beef fed Sharpe brothers.


Ten to fourteen million Japanese watched that match and Rikidozan karate chop the White Devils into submission. Pandemonium ruled as they banzai’d themselves hoarse. Five heart attacks and numerous folk fell out of trees trying to view the action. Twenty four million watched the rematch. Pride was restored to the nation. The Victors, despite all their fouls and filthy tactics, were vanquished by Japanese fighting spirit in a spectacular (and scripted) piece of sweaty theatre.

Folk rushed to buy TVs to watch the Mitsubishi Fightman Hour. Sales rose from 17,000 in 1954 to 4,500,000 in 1959 and it was television wrestling which provided the trigger, and it goes without saying that Rikidozan became a national hero of beyond epic proportions, in addition to becoming fabulously wealthy. And for trivia buffs, Harold Sakata of James Bond’s Oddjob fame came out of this circuit.

But here is the kicker. Riki was actually born in what was to become North Korea DPROK, and for obvious reasons that was a major league state secret which was supported by fake biographies and other memorablia. His Korean love child was an active member of the North Korean Communist Party, and his brother still resided in NK commie land. He was also closely connected to Hisayuki Nachii the Korean gang boss of the Korean Tosei-kai, who kicked ass, took names and replaced the traditional Japanese yakuza as overlords of Tokyo Vice after 1945, commonly referred to as the “water trade”.

Nachii: always carried four guns and not noted for his mental stability.

Nachii: always carried four guns and wasn’t noted for his mental stability.

In addition to a booze and pill addiction, Riki was a commie sympathiser who offered to cover all costs of bringing the North Korean Olympic Team to the Tokyo Olympics in 1964. And if that was insufficient, he had involvements in secret US-ROK negotiations. Riki died after being knifed in the restroom of the new Latin Quarter Nite Club in 1963.

Now, its a natural fact that no post is complete unless it contains a value-add, usually carried out at the expense of some other site, so here goes.

Christopher Green, contributor to Sino-NK, recently uploaded – Up Close and Personal: Dennis Rodman Hits Pyongyang – where he discusses the Kim’s attachment to US trash culture, and this naturally included reference to The Collision in Korea, a 1995 wrestling event in NK involving young Rick Flair HERE.

Rick Flair: exemplar of sartorial elegance Rick Flair: an exemplar of sartorial elegance[/caption]

Since my attempt to post a polite back story on Rickidozan in the DPROK still remains in Sino-NK’s spam filter, I shall publicly upbraid Mr Green here. The 1995 Collision in Korea had serious precedents. Robert Whiting’s meticulous research points to the fact that Kim Il Sung, the first in the family franchise, was a massive fan of Rikidozan, and had a collection of all of Ricki’s matches. Since I’ve plagiarised liberally from his Tokyo Underworld, lets conclude with a quote:

Kim “….absolutely loved seeing a native North Korean beating the blue-eyed, white-skinned capitalist warmongers senseless”.

So there, Mr Green.

Blue Sky Markets: Part Six

June 9, 2013

If there is ever a bower-bird of Japanese cinema, it has to be Quentin Tarantino. The Kill Bill franchise contains a dozen references, and probably a ton more which are easily missed, not having the benefit of his vast film library. He pillaged Yasuharu Hasebe’s Lady Snowblood which is sort of okay – or at least made okay by the appearance of the catholic nun assassin team and some strategically naked swordplay scenes. Hasebe also turned out gems like Stray Cat Rock: Sex Hunter with teenage girl knife fights. Other pearls include Female Prisoner Scorpion #701: Grudge Song.

Female badass Meiko Kaji

Female badass Meiko Kaji

I’m certainly glad I wasn’t introduced to Pinky Violence flics when I was a young impressionable who regularly went to the drive-in. Gauzy soft porn, much envisceration with knives, swords and other sharp objects. They would have been responsible for destroying a whole generation of school boys.

Hasebe also made the pretty slick yakuza flic Bloody Territories in 1969. You can read a flawed synopsis HERE. Flawed, simply because the movie reflects the yakuza’s image of themselves:

Yakuza have always prided themselves upon the code of bushido, or way of the samurai. Violent death was traditionally seen as a poetic, tragic, and honorable fate, and the concepts of giri and ninjo are central to the relationships among members. Giri, or obligation, refers to the strong sense of duty that is felt between members, and in a sense is the “social cloth” that binds much of Japan together. Ninjo is roughly translatable to emotion, or human compassion, and denotes “generosity or sympathy to toward the weak and disadvantaged, and sympathy towards others (Kaplan and Dubro 28).” This tie to chivalry and patriotism gave the Yakuza a sort of Robin Hood type of romantic image when viewed in the public eye.
Reference HERE and some additional reading provided by Jake Adelstein, who has recently monetised his life of crime reporting in Japan into a Hollywood production. (Don’t expect much though.)

Brothers with full body tats. Men of honour in a tightly organised, rule-governed hierarchical order.

Yakuza inner-gang life was/is Hobbesian to put it mildly. Greed, betrayal, extreme violence, side deals at odds with the corporate charter, bosses who don’t think twice about sacrificing underlings, all in all behaviour which displays a distinct lack of brotherhood. If Bloody Territories reflects the conventional yakuza myths, Kinji Fukasaku’s Battles without Honour or Humanity is the ultimate revisionist take on the modern yakuza reality which rose out of the ruins of WW11.

Just dig this for an opening musical sequence.

Highly complicated plot which begins in a black market with a GI intent on rape, a murder and other general mayhem. Ominous RKO voice overs hold the narrative sequences together. Lurid burlesque jazz soundtrack. Reviews HERE and HERE.

battles without honor or humanity
Oh yes, the final scene – Shinto mob funeral – where protagonist Hironi rejects the code with some well placed bullets.

This is the big daddy of all yakuza movies. No competition.

Blue Sky Markets: Five

June 8, 2013

Whether Seijun Suzuki took LSD or not, he certainly had a monopoly on cinematic hallucinatory effects judging by Pistol Opera (2001), a remake of his earlier Branded To Kill. Wild explosions of colour rippling in perfect symmetry across the screen. Compositions which would have made Antonioni (think Zabriskie Point) green with envy. Also a massive dose of 60’s pop culture sartorial elegance if you’ve seen Tokyo Drifter. And I highly recommend the tribute site 45.Caliber Samurai, even if your interests don’t go beyond lurid film posters.

Tokyo Drifter

Tokyo Drifter

Pistol Opera

Pistol Opera

Wicki does a good job overviewing his life and films, and here’s the bit I like. Seijun Suzuki was born in 1923 and so got to serve in the Imperial forces during WW11. After surviving two shipwrecks, he wrote of his military career:

While I stayed in the army out of fear of being executed as a deserter as soon as I threw down my rifle and ran, it wasn’t long before I was promoted to trainee officer with a salary of twelve-and-a-half yen, comparable at the time to that of a departmental manager in business life. I went to the Philippines, where the war took a wrong turn for us. Then I was transferred to Taiwan, where I was stationed at an isolated airport at the foot of a mountain, with twelve others. Our wages were divided into thirteen equal parts; as in a perfect communist system. To avoid the outbreak of a revolt because of sexual deprivation, we didn’t just get food, clothing and shelter, but the army staff had also considered it strategically necessary to supply us with three army prostitutes. This isn’t a very edifying story, but I can’t help it: I spent most of my money on booze and women, and when I arrived at Tanabe harbor the year after liberation, I was completely destitute.

It was little wonder that he adopted a fuck you view of work in the rigidly controlled Japanese studio system of the-then five major companies. Lets not get too exercised by tight plot lines: narratives best unfold around over-the-top imagery, lots of violence and the occasional sexual peccadillo never hurts. And if you worry about your paraphilia’s, watch Youth of the Beast for the golf club scene (if I recall correctly), and you’ll feel ….um….normal. Tremendous set of stills from the film HERE.

In 1964 Suzuki returned to the extremely mean streets of bombed out buildings and black markets in post 1945 Tokyo with Gates of Flesh, a tale of a foulmouthed sisterhood of working girls (a futen and not futon, okay) “…maintaining tenuous friendships and a semblance of order in a world of chaos, …. when a renegade ex-soldier/black marketeer stumbles into their midst, lusts and loyalties clash, with tragic results. With Gate of Flesh, he ….. delivers a whirlwind of social critique and pulp drama, shot through with brilliant colors and raw emotions”.

An erudite essay HERE, and a youtube clip from the film – retribution for the new girl who broke the cardinal rule of the working sisterhood – no free sex.

Another really good overview of Suzuki’s life and the film HERE.

Finally, John Woo is undertaking a remake of Youth of the Beast. I don’t think I will be searching it out – probably all gloss and digital effects – having just been totally disappointed by Takeshi Kitano’s latest offering Outrage which as this review indicates is a pile of pointless crap. Need an introduction to Office Kitano, try Boiling Point instead.

If you can deal with youtube’s lo-fi colour values, here’s the original Youth of the Beast in its entirety

Just can’t seem to finish this series: McHale’s take on this blogging albatross series.


Blue Sky Markets: Final Part Four

May 31, 2013

If I don’t finish this series on Japanese black markets during the years of the US occupation, I can see the site ending up in some sort of digital limbo, the place where all vanity scribblers go to live out their final years in a mix of anguish and regret. To be sure, different volunteering activities cut into one’s time, but that’s no excuse for a lack of personal discipline and general sloth, plus a few of the other cardinal sins. (Not too sure of the Christian characterisation however, since I view some of the Seven Deadlies as prime virtues of the first order.)

Focussing on the BLue Sky Market theme with some very colourful wicki background previously mentioned, lets go to the movies with Master Directors Seijun Suzuki, Akira Kurosawa, Kinji Fukasadu and Shohei Imamura. And if Japanese film is big in your cultural universe, the internet now provides a wealth of high quality dedicated sites and other resources.

A couple of other points. Japanese cinema was technically superior to a most Western productions of the Post World War 11 period. The quality exhibited by the Criterion Collection is beyond measure. In those movies which come with additional Commentary, fans will note that Australian academics dominate this specialised field for reasons which I can’t explain. Finally, this post has no pretensions of originality, except the manner in which the four parts have been organised.

Stray Dog (1949) was Kurosawa’s last and ninth film – a mix of noir and neo-realism – before he achieved international recognition with Rashomon. At one level it is very much a standard police procedural, and at another a comment on the general desperation of Japanese society Post 1945 during a truly stinking hot Tokyo summer. Recently badged Det. Murakani loses his pistol to a pickpocket while on a tram, and his efforts to retrieve his firearm now used in murders, takes us through the layers of Japanese society. A very nice compilation of comments HERE, and there is another ton of excellent cine-comment on the film.

Murakani (Toshiro Mifume) a Dapper Dan in white suit and shoes literally wilts in the summer humidity. Everybody is seeking relief, finding shade, fanning themselves, drinking beer or in the case of the detective division repositioning their electric fans as they move round the bull pen. Kurosawa ‘s camera techniques are discussed HERE, plus the continuous 8 minute sequence in a Tokyo black market shot by a camera hidden in a box which captured all the elements of Blue Sky society.

As we follow the rookie cop, we see the street markets, flophouses, shop houses, amusement parlors, brothels, dancehalls, bars, and nightclubs. It’s crowded and claustrophobic, a chaotic swirling atmosphere. We encounter yakuza, street hawkers, drifters, the unemployed, the destitute, ex-service men, street kids, gangs, hustlers, mama-sans and prostitutes. We hear chugging trains, train whistles, the hustle and bustle of street life, postwar Japanese pop songs, and newly imported American big band swing drifting from the bars and nightclubs. In a surreal scene, we see Murakami’s searching eyeballs superimposed on frames of crowds in the market. The entire black market sequence introduces us to a distressed society. It is on-location social commentary, a realistic backdrop, which sets up the main theme. Citation here.

In contrast, the other fabulous scene is the baseball game – the new Japan rising out of the ashes.

Finally, a relationship. Mifume might be the actor most associated with Kurosawa, but Takashi Shimura (Murakani’s mentor Det. Sato) is mesmerising, and none more so than where he takes a break from interrogating the hard bitten fallen angel to enjoy a popsicle together. Heat, desperation and the task at hand. All are suspended in a scene exuding sensual enjoyment and simple pleasures. Shimura and Mifume replicated the same father-son relationship a few years later in The Seven Samurai.

Suspended in time

Suspended in time

And fittingly, Takashi Shimura was the descendent of a samurai family.

To be continued.

Blue Sky Markets: Part Three

April 26, 2013

The theme being highlighted here are the Blue Sky Markets, which were a commonplace in Post-WW11 Japan during the years of Macarthur’s shogunate (1945-1951). Anywhere from 17,000 to 20,000 black markets (depending on your choice of authority) sprang up, often, within days of Hirohito’s capitulation.

osaka citizens listening
Osaka citizens listening to Hirohito’s speech.

Two Yamato Race understatements in his weasel-word speech:

…..the war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan’s advantage, while the general trends of the world have all turned against her interest.
The welfare of the wounded and the war-sufferers, and of those who have lost their homes and livelihood, are the objects of Our profound solicitude

And the feudal emperor worshippers, militarists and industrialists showed their real solicitude towards a general populace now living in hovels: they took control of vast amounts of materials which had been hoarded for the anticipated last ditch Battle on the Mainland, and made their fortunes by diverting these materials into the Black Market. Medicines, penicillin, metals, cement, gold and jewellery and just about everything else required for plain survival and/or economic reconstruction.

The peasantry, hitherto the expendables at the bottom of the feudal order, now enjoyed a sense of empowerment as they traded food to starving city dwellers for anything of real value. Sort of ironical as they had been previously been exploited to the hilt, with their young men being drafted into the army as cannon fodder, while young rural women were sold into prostitution by their parents. In Tokyo Ground Xero, the serial murder and rapist Kodaira Yoshio was able to lure his female victims into isolated spots by promising to introduce them to farmers selling cheap rice.

Blue Sky Markets: Part Two: Reading.

April 13, 2013

If you’ve read John Dower’s beyond brilliant Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of WW11, you would have encountered images similar to below. You can find a critical review of Dower’s book – albeit one which ignores his path breaking analysis of the transformations within Japanese popular culture (movies, style, cabaret, pulp novels and magazines HERE – and HERE is a good synopsis on prostitution based on Dower’s work. The latter is the most interesting blog I’ve come across for ages, and look forward to having a good flick thru. Recommended, if only for its historic b/w photos.

Blackmarket in Shimbasi.

Blackmarket in Shimbasi.

One of the main settings in Tokyo Year Zero by David Peace.
Blue Sky market in Okinawa

Blue Sky market in Okinawa

Hollywood in Japan

Love it. Pepe Le Moko – first film deconstructed in Narrative Studies.
Hollywood in Japan1Hollywood in Japan
Pan Pan Pan Pan

pan pan1 And, the ironic image of Pan Pan

Post WW11 Ground Zero.
Many horsemen of the apocalypse stalked the land. Epidemic diseases. Psychological trauma. Widespread starvation. Wholesale corruption by govt officials and industrialists. Millions of now despised ex-soldiers and former colonists returned to the mother country with zero prospects. Women selling their bodies for a couple of rice balls (“That is when I sank into the despised profession of being a ‘a woman of the night'”[Mizoguchi]). And, as in all Hobbesian societies, the blackmarket ruled what was left of a devastated economy.

Some 20,000 of what were termed Blue Sky markets sprang up across Japan to meet every social need. Not surprisingly, all this offered great advancement opportunities for Yakuza gangs, who now found themselves clashing with previously ‘untouchable’ communities of Koreans, Formosans and Chinese in black-market turf wars.

You can read a chapter of The Yakuza by David Kaplan @ Alec Dubro (University of California Press, 3003), by hitting up UCAP and opening the PDF file right side. It is well worth the effort, as they stress the deep continuities in Japanese society, the symbiotic relationship between militarism, big business and yakuza mob activities on the domestic front. Post WW11, Yakuza gangs functioned as de facto instruments of government, being involved in running markets, fire brigades, unions, real estate, building construction, tax collection departments, the ubiquitous entertainment industry, etc. Which is to say that gang criminality was completely institutionalised.

2013 updates on recent accommodations between the Yakuza, the police and the political sphere can be read HERE and HERE. While both reads uncover nothing that is not common knowledge, they do provide excellent overviews.

(And on a lighter note, the HQ of the Yamaguchi-gumi family was/is situated next to the Australian Embassy. The Oz Ambassador lodged a complaint with the Tokyo govt in the 90s. Apparently, while gazing out of his master of the universe office, he would see the guards patrolling the grounds routinely pissing on shrubs and fences. A quiet message was sent and the ambassador’s dignity was restored.)

SCAP’s (Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers) – ie Macarthur and the Americans – social engineering designed to demilitarise, democratise, empower workers and women etc produced quite limited, superficial results. Harry Emerson Wildes (Typhoon in Tokyo 1954), a political adviser to SCAP, who also had a hand in drafting the new Japanese Constitution, resigned in 1946 claiming that the new political parties were little more than hooligan gangs. Finally, a surprising fact is that Macarthur made sure that the Army of Occupation (Shinchu Gun) for the most part consisted of newly minted troops fresh from the US, rather than veterans of the Pacific campaign, thus removing the hate and payback factor.

The end result of the above ploy by Macarthur led to massive fraternisation between the Victors and local communities, which is to say that the prostitution business expanded exponentially. And if Blue Sky markets constituted capitalism in its rawest form, corruption among the Occupation forces also became the norm. As Robert Whiting writes in Tokyo Underworld:

“…., the soldiers stationed in Japan each month remitted to the United States a sum that exceeded their total payroll. When the Bank of Japan entrusted the United States Army with 800,000 carats of diamonds, the diamonds simply vanished. When the Tokyo police force handed over its guns to the Americans, the entire armoury somehow disappeared”.

You can read a tremendous chapter of Whiting’s book HERE, which vividly illustrates the points above.

The black market was probably the most important institution in any Japanese city or town. A loci of all the power relationships then existing in Japanese society, and a site where demand met supply in their most brutal form.

Not surprisingly, the black market – Shimbasi in this case – features prominently in Tokyo Ground Zero by David Peace (Faber @ Faber 2007). A police procedural with plotlines and characters which incorporate most of the themes mentioned above, even though it involves unravelling the activities of the serial killer Kodaira Yoshio, who honed his murderous skills with the Japanese army in Manchuria.

The Guardian provides a good account of Peace’s writing technique, which I found plain annoying. The last thing the literary world needs now is more of the James Ellroy noir style. Nonetheless, gripping plot and behind the scene machinations right up these with anything found in Ellroy’s LA Quartet.

Finishing Part Three. Blue Sky Markets: Cinema.

Blue Sky Markets: Part One

April 10, 2013

All bloggers have a tendency to recycle and, in this case the process provides an opportunity to focus on a number of cinematic, historical and fictional texts which have provided much pleasure over the past few years, providing the grist for my first attempt to write about:

Kenji Mizoguchi the great Japanese auteur/director of women’s point-of-view movies, and

The birth of Japanese film noir in the form of Akira Kurosawa’s 1949 masterpiece Stray Dog which morphed into a brief discussion of a couple of path breaking yakuza movies HERE.

Also recycling a couple of previously written paragraphs simply because I can. If you want professional reviews, you will of course go to Midnight Eye: Visions of Japanese Cinema, unquestionably the most erudite site on Japanese cinema, and do your own homework. There are also a number of other quality resources on the net which I will link.

Finally, I would be remiss if I failed to congratulate Justrecently’s Weblog/China on his completion of five years of blogging and essential Chinese-English translation work.