THE YAKUZA MOVIE BOOK: A Guide to Japanese Gangster Films, by Mark Schilling. Berkeley: Stone Bridge Press, 2003, 336 pp., $19.95 (paper).

When Mark Schilling was interviewing veteran filmmaker Seijun Suzuki for this book, the director suddenly asked the author: “Why are you interested in yakuza movies?” Well, answered Schilling, they form an important genre in Japanese film and one that has never been fully written about. The director then asked “Are yakuza films so different?”

This book, well-written, beautifully researched, thorough and fascinating, is the author’s answer. Not since Paul Schrader’s early (1974) essay on the yakuza film has this important genre received such insight and detail. Among the reasons for its success is Schilling’s approach to his subject.

As in his two prior books, “The Encyclopedia of Japanese Pop Culture” (1997) and “Contemporary Japanese Film” (1999), Schilling favors a format grounded in personality. We are given the people who do the work and we are spared authoritarian theory. Thus this book interviews five notable genre directors — Kinji Fukasaku, Teruo Ishii, Seijun Suzuki, Takashi Miike and the often under-rated Rokuro Mochizuki — and gives profiles of the late Tai Kato and Takeshi Kitano.

There are 14 essays on the top actors in the genre plus interviews with Sho Aikawa, Noboru Ando and Bunta Sugawara. In addition, there are reviews of 123 films with critical commentaries; a guide to films on video and DVD; locating guides for directors, actors and themes; a bibliography; and a glossary.

We follow the story in the words of those who wrote it, and this lends an immediacy to what we are being told. The most self-evasive of authors, Schilling asks a pertinent question then steps back and lets his subject speak. He is at the same time upfront about the worth of his subject: “Having said that gang films matter, I have to admit that many of them have few redeeming qualities, aesthetic or otherwise. They are violent fantasies whose ideology — if it can be called that — ranges from the feudalistic to the proto-fascist.”

As a guilty pleasure, however, the yakuza film ranks high. This would perhaps account for its protean nature. It is always reinventing itself. Right now the gamut runs from the astonishing fantastic violence of Miike to the thoughtful studies of Mochizuki which are, says Schilling, “adult in ways that the films of many of his agemates, busy making violent fantasies for grown-up boys, are not.”

In Japan, a cinematic place has been found for the yakuza. There have been thousands of Japanese gang films over a period of eight decades, and “if one counts all the films in which yakuza play an important role — everything from villains to comic foils — the total soars far higher.”

Indeed, it is even possible to read the lovable film series’ character Tora-san as a yakuza (my observation, not Schilling’s) because he is a tekiya, a wandering peddler, and this is one of the defining occupations of the yakuza.

Thus the Japanese gangster assumes an important position in the Japanese film because he assumes an important position in politics and business and, indeed, in Japanese life itself.

The longevity of the genre and the ambivalence of its audience — wavering between shock and titillation — also illustrate the centrality of the subject. Indeed, the yakuza genre has made so many comebacks during its career that one of its prime makers, Seijun Suzuki, speaks of obsession, adding: “That goes for you too, Mark — you shouldn’t become addicted to yakuza movies.”

There is, however, little danger of this. Schilling plays a very cool Virgil to our Dante as we descend, circle after circle, into the yakuza underworld. And in the process he has given us not only the first major study of a true Japanese genre but also — with its facts, figures, and interviews — a real contribution to film-genre studies.

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