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‘The Outsider’ scores a few hits among the misses

by Jake Adelstein

Contributing Writer

Netflix last month released a yakuza film starring Jared Leto titled “The Outsider” to critical disdain. And as much as I expected to hate the movie, I didn’t. It’s portrayal of the world of organized crime in Japan after World War II is not entirely inaccurate. It even has its moments.

The plot: An American prisoner of war named Nick Lowell is released from jail after saving a gangster from being hanged. He is offered a job, learns Japanese, is shown how to extort money from civilians and eventually becomes a full-fledged gangster himself.

Variety calls the film “the cinematic equivalent of a study-abroad student showing off the kanji forearm tattoo whose meaning he never bothered to learn.”

Not quite.

The film’s title may reference a term typically used by gangsters: toppamono, which describes excessively violent individuals or outcasts. In this case, Nick, who has a penchant for extreme violence with typewriters (and other blunt instruments), wins a place in the (fictional) Osaka-based Shiramatsu gang. He’s almost certainly a quintessential outsider.

There is an obligatory finger-chopping scene, which seems poorly executed and divorced from reality. Gangsters sometimes chop off fingers to atone for their mistakes or the mistakes of their underlings. The movie depiction is off … but let’s skip the gory details. For the record, it has been illegal to coerce a yakuza member to chop off a finger or assist them to do so since 1992.

The film’s secondary conflict is a yakuza cinema staple: old-fashioned “good” yakuza vs. a new generation of ruthless corporate yakuza. The film features double-crosses galore, and none of these appear to be entirely unrealistic. Look at the Yamaguchi-gumi split starting in 2015 and the murders that have followed. In this movie, the double-crossing yakuza is the only one not wearing the obligatory black and white suit. The color of betrayal seems to be light brown.

Is it impossible for a white man to become a gangster, as some critics have complained? In theory, no.

Organized crime groups after World War II have been surprisingly open to foreign recruits. The Yamaguchi-gumi learned much of its trade from the Korean-Japanese mafia group, the Yanagawa-gumi (Osaka), which it later absorbed. There has been a Taiwanese yakuza boss. The Sumiyoshi-kai once welcomed an Iranian into their ranks. The yakuza are a meritocracy, although they are often structured like families. Money is thicker than blood, or race. Even the Inagawa-kai is headed by a Korean-Japanese at present.

The producers seem to be aware they’d face cries of cultural appropriation or accusations of “whitewashing.” These problems are addressed by having Nick violently kill or maim the few Caucasians he meets who ridicule the Japanese. As such, Nick just may be the world’s deadliest weaboo.

The movie has been unfavorably compared to “white savior” films such as “Dances With Wolves” and there are some similarities. In one scene, the “good boss” rejects an offer to join the increasingly corporate Seizu group by saying: “We are wolves. We can’t live in cages.”

“Dances With Yakuza,” anyone?

The sumo bout scene has been called gratuitous, but in reality it’s not. Yakuza have had a long relationship with sumo as both sponsors of the stables and individual wrestlers, as Robert Whiting detailed in his 1999 book, “Tokyo Underworld.” It was a popular spectator sport with old-school yakuza. Why? Because it costs a lot of money and takes a great amount of influence to secure good seats at a match.

In fact, you could argue that the Yamaguchi-gumi’s fondness for sumo is one of the causes of its decline. In 2009, members of the gang were seen on NHK in the front row seats at the Nagoya summer tournament. This incensed the National Police Agency, which declared war on them that September. In January 2010, the Japan Sumo Association finally agreed to ban gangsters from attending matches.

Nick doesn’t know the meaning of the carp being tattooed on his back — at least at first. Unrealistic, right?

Although it may seem silly, he wouldn’t be the first young gangster to misunderstand the meaning of a tattoo. Often, though not always, a gangster will entrust the tattoo artist with the design and its symbolism.

Four years ago, a tattoo artist who has worked on gangsters offered to give me a tattoo of a tanuki (raccoon-dog). He suggested this, he said, “because tanuki are ballsy, tenacious, shape-shifting, sneaky creatures who rummage through garbage.”

It did seem like an appropriate totem animal for a reporter. He even offered to do it free of charge, but I politely declined.

The real problem with “The Outsider” is that it makes life in organized crime oddly appealing. It shouldn’t be — gangsters aren’t heroes.

April 15 will mark my 25th year as a reporter, with much of my time spent covering organized crime in Japan. It’s advantageous for me to be a foreign reporter, because I can find common ground with some members. Many gangsters consider themselves to be “outsiders” in their own right. We have that in common.

However, I’d never delude myself that I was more than an outsider among outsiders. If you become an “insider,” the reward is usually betrayal, prison time, paranoia and/or poverty. If you have a conscience, there’s feelings of guilt to digest as well. It’s not an especially good life.

Susumu Ishii, a second-generation leader of the Inagawa-kai, once said it best — “It’s better living an ordinary life as a salaryman.” That may be so, except that it wouldn’t make for a particularly compelling movie.

Dark Side of the Rising Sun is a monthly column that takes a behind-the-scenes look at news in Japan.