October 21, 2009

Gang rule

Japanese television has a whole genre devoted to the revenge drama. It might more accurately be described as the "all your problems can be solved by beating the crap out of somebody" genre. The show must feature a bunch of loser teenage rebels without a cause and/or an ex-yakuza or ex-gang member who's "gone straight" but isn't above using his (or her) fists and past criminal connections to see wrongs righted.

Gokusen is a high school melodrama in the Dragon Zakura vein, casting a woman in the in loco parentis role. Kumiko Yamaguchi, the daughter of a yakuza crime family, becomes a teacher in the roughest, toughest school in town. What make the manga and anime great are her efforts to "go straight" while not abandoning her past, and her ability to outsmart her scheming students as well as outfight them.

The television series, though, quickly falls into a repetitious rut where a bunch of teenagers—as mind-numbingly stupid as they are violent—get themselves into serious trouble every week and their teacher bales them out in an identical—and eye-rollingly implausible—fight sequence every week.

But, hey, what do I know—the third and most painfully tedious season was the year's highest-rated drama series. But the manga and anime versions give Kumiko a far more interesting character arc as she struggles to reconcile her yakuza princess and school teacher roles.

Salaryman Kintaro moves Gokusen into Japan's business world. Anybody who crosses Kintaro or his company gets whupped. And there's somebody crossing them—resorting to extortion, assault, murder, arson, bombing—every darned week. Beyond the absurd plot turns and scenery-chewing acting, Salaryman Kintaro distills down to something between adolescent cliffhanger melodrama and violence porn.

Seriously, I don't get this attitude where showing an attractive naked woman is verboten (Japanese television has actually grown more conservative in this regard over the past quarter century), but beating somebody unconscious is prime time excitement.

The Rookies wants to be the baseball version of Dragon Zakura, except that with all the teenage gangbangers (identified as anybody with spikey dyed hair and tons of angst) on the team constantly going off on each other, the question is how they manage to field a team. The lesson, as Salaryman Kintaro proves, is that with a big enough animal id, you can recover from any life-threatening injury in a week.

The best of the bunch so far is Yasuko and Kenji. The goofy premise has ex-biker gang leader Kenji (Masahiro Matsuoka) abandoning his old life and becoming a manga artist to support his kid sister (Mikako Tabe). Tabe and Matsuoka possess honest-to-goodness comic chops, and the story is funny and inventive. But even that can't stop the contrived fight scenes from getting boring and repetitious.

Period dramas can't resist the formula. The Killers is about, well, a bunch of "good guy" killers, a star chamber like the gang led by David Soul in Clint Eastwood's Magnum Force. It's got a decent cast (Masahiro Matsuoka gets to ham it up some more, though not as much as in Yasuko and Kenji) and great costumes. But what it boils down to is a bunch of nasty people being better off dead every week.

This is not a recent development. From 1962 to 1989, Shintaro Katsu made twenty-six Zatoichi films (including Zatoichi meets Yojimbo) and a two-year television series. A well-received 2003 revival cast Takeshi Kitano in the lead. Each Zatoichi installment involves the titular character running into a gang of ne're-do-wells who need themselves some killin' and who get their comeuppance by the time the credits start to roll.

The movies are made watchable by Katsu's acting and the twists and turns in the subplots. The same can't be said for the dozens of B-grade copycats spawned during the same period (some of which were made by Katsu himself), which compensated for a lack of creativity with sex, nudity, and buckets of fake blood.

"Getting even" seems a sure-fire formula in Japan. But watch too many of these shows—practically anything from the insanely prolific career of Takashi Miike (a major inspiration for Quentin Tarantino)—or simply the nightly news, and you can start believing that Japan is a crime-ridden no-man's-land straight out of The Road Warrior.

When it's still one of the calmest countries on the planet.

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