Made men: Tokyo-based ‘yakuza’ talent agency delivers the real deal

by Alex Martin

Staff Writer

They aren’t just acting tough; they really are tough.

In an entertainment industry rife with crime shows, no one can supply villains quite like Takakura-gumi: Most of the talent agency’s 62 members are former gangsters.

Take Yoshidamaru, for example, a son of a yakuza boss with an intimidating scowl who plays a violent, ill-tempered director in his latest role in a promotional video for a teenage actress and singer.

Or Riman Arufu, a heavyset bald man with a full-body tattoo who appeared as an inmate in a cop drama that aired in July. The 40-something is also using his experience of having survived an abusive childhood and escaping the life of a mobster to give motivational talks to those who are struggling.

“You won’t be able to erase your past as a yakuza, but your family and friends may accept you as who you are if they see you working hard in showbiz,” says So Kuramoto, the kumichō — or the don, in yakuza lingo — of Takakura-gumi.

The management agency he founded in 2011 provides the swelling ranks of ex-gangsters an opportunity for social integration. And appearing on television, Kuramoto says, helps lift their self-esteem.

Membership of Japan’s notorious organized crime groups has been in decline, especially since 2011, when local ordinances prohibiting ordinary citizens and companies from doing business with yakuza were extended to all prefectures, cutting off key sources of income.

Reflecting the decline, the Yamaguchi-gumi, the largest and most powerful yakuza syndicate, underwent a major split in 2015 after years of police crackdowns and financial strains. The National Police Agency counts 34,500 yakuza members as of the end of 2017, down from 84,200 a decade earlier.

Kuramoto has never been a yakuza but says he has brushed shoulders with many members during his stints behind bars on charges of fraud and assault, and in his decadeslong career in the entertainment industry, including his time running an adult video production firm.

Donning dark shades and a leopard-print tracksuit and with his hair slicked back, the 52-year-old looks every bit the part of a thug, such as the ones seen in Takeshi Kitano’s “Outrage” franchise of gangster flicks. But despite his menacing appearance, Kuramoto comes across as an affable man and a devoted husband. The name of his agency, he points out, is not a nod to the late actor and master of the yakuza role, Ken Takakura, but in fact a mash-up of Kuramoto and his wife’s maiden name, Takahashi.

“I’ve put my wife through a lot of hardships over the years,” he says. “Takakura-gumi is one way of redeeming myself for her.”

Most gigs Takakura-gumi gets called for involve bit parts that require a fierce look and not much acting ability. For the 2015 police drama series “Yamegoku,” starring former all-girl pop group AKB48 member Yuko Oshima, Kuramoto rounded up over a dozen of his men to play minor yakuza roles.

That means joining Takakura-gumi won’t provide a living wage — at least for now. In fact, all members of the agency have separate full-time jobs and moonlight as actors. Yoshidamaru, for example, operates a construction firm, while Arufu runs his own internet business.

“Actors can obviously act, but they can only imitate real villains. We’re the opposite — we know how to be bad, but we can’t act,” Kuramoto says. “It’ll be great if I can find someone that can do both.”

For ex-yakuza looking for ways to rejoin society through acting, Kuramoto asks them to provide identification papers and a written pledge that they have severed ties with the underworld. Koganei Police Station in the suburbs of Tokyo, near where Kuramoto lives and his talent agency is located, will then screen the applicants to see whether they measure up.

“All new recruits go through that process,” he says, but that’s not all. Local organized crime exclusion ordinances typically include five-year clauses that prohibit former members from opening bank accounts or owning property during that period of probation, a substantial hurdle for those looking for legitimate employment. The same rules apply in the entertainment industry, Kuramoto says, with broadcasters averse to casting former gangsters who haven’t completed the customary five years.

But once that time is up, the camera is good to roll. And Takakura-gumi has a wardrobe to transform anyone into a sinister-looking villain — thanks to outfits from Birth Japan, an online store specializing in over-the-top yakuza-inspired fashion apparel and accessories.

The “outlaw shop” sells everything from faux crocodile-skin hand bags and flamboyant printed ties to flashy gingham suits and sunglasses for those wanting to live out the glitzy yakuza lifestyle in popular imagination.

“It’s the go-to shop when dressing up actors to play outcasts,” Kuramoto says. “It can look ridiculous, but television loves it.”

While casting offers continue to mount, Kuramoto is interested in venturing beyond television and appealing to the surging number of overseas tourists visiting Japan as the government gears up to welcome the world to the 2020 Tokyo Games.

Kuramoto was recently approached by a major travel agency asking whether he could set up a mock yakuza feud complete with fake blood and gunshots to entertain a group of rich Russians making a port call in Japan during an international cruise.

The plan eventually fell through, but Kuramoto felt he was on to something: Maybe he could produce yakuza shows like the popular ninja performances tourists flock to.

“I’m always full of ideas,” he says. “I’d like to tell foreign visitors that if you’re interested in the yakuza, we’re here to play that role.”