Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Oshii Mamoru Directs Stage Version of TetsuJin 28! (In Osaka?!)

Hi Blog,

If you're in Osaka in January and have about ¥10,000 to blow, then you should go and see Oshii Mamoru's directed stage adaptation of TETSUJIN 28 (aka. 鉄人28号). I'd be curious to check this out considering Mamoru is a recluse who prefers the company of drawings and basset hounds to people. (So what's he doing directing real live actors?)

Oh! And can someone tell me what's up with this guy「サンプラザ中野くん」? (aka. Sun Plaza Nakano Kun - Pic right) He looks like a younger, balder Tamori.



Info can be found here.
(Via Kine Japan.)

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Kumakiri's Kazuyoshi's new film NON-KO at FILMeX

Hi Blog,

Been meaning to post about this for a while and am now just getting around to it. My old friend Kumakiri Kazuyoshi, for whom I did the subtitles for his debut feature KICHIKU DAI ENKAI (for its initial film festival run), has a new film in competition at the upcoming TOKYO FILMeX called NON-KO 36 SAI: KAJI TETSUDAI. (The English title is just: NON-KO)

Although I have yet to see it, it appears that this film is a kind of return to Kumakiri's roots. It's a simple character drama with the cast and crew positions filled out by Kuma's old team. Sakai Maki stars as Bando Nobuko and Ujita Takashi again picks up the scriptwriting reigns with Kumakiri. Kumakiri's old Osaka Geidai pal Akira aka. AKAINU has composed the music and Kimura Toshiki is on for producing duties.

The story is as follows:
Nobuko tried to be successful as an actress in Tokyo (stage name ‘Nonko’), but wasn’t popular. She married her manager and soon divorced. Now a once-divorced woman in her mid-30s, she returns home to the Shinto shrine that her family runs, to help out with domestic chores. Her father is always in a stubborn rage, her mother is always trying to calm things down. However, Nonko’s married sister, who already has a daughter, scathingly says of Nonko, “It’s all over for her.”
There’s no place to run to and no place to belong, just a backwards little country town. The only thing to do is ride her bicycle to her friend’s bar to drink with the owner, another divorcee. She can’t remember the last time she got dressed up or had sex.

Nonko, who is totally lacking in ambition, encounters a young man named Masaru. He has great expectations about selling chicks at the shrine festival. Nonko ends up taking him to the house of Yasukawa, who allots space for festival stalls. Masaru is rather naïve and pitiable, but this earnest and straightforward younger man puts a smile back on her face, and she gradually becomes more emotionally and physically receptive, until her ex-husband, Udagawa, makes his appearance.
Nonko’s heart begins to tremble.

I'm excited to see this as I think that Kumakiri is an immensely talented filmmaker who succumbed to early career success (to some extent). Of just about all of the young directors I encountered, Kumakiri has shown without a doubt some of the best intuitive filmmaking skills. And plus, any director who casts Wakamatsu Koji as Babe Ruth is doing something right.

NON-KO will be playing FILMeX Nov. 24th at 6:30pm and there are English subs, I think.

Here's a clip from the local Yorii news, where NON-KO was shot, talking about the filming of the movie and its recent premier. Kumakiri is, naturally, heavily featured.



And here's the link to the trailer.

There's plenty of more info about the film on the very English friendly website. Something tells me that they're actively courting the international audience...

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Obayashi's HAUSU on IFC! (aka. HOUSE)

Hi Blog,

Outcast Cinema's Marc Walkow brings word of IFC Channels amazingly cool and yet, totally unexpected, broadcasting of Obayashi Nobuhiko's HAUSU (1977) later this month. 

Regular readers of this blog know that HAUSU is one of my favorite films-- and certainly one of my favorite horror films inspired by a seven-year-old's story idea. (That would be the director's daughter.) I've alread written about it here so I won't repeat myself. That said, the plot synopsis on the IFC Channel's website is incorrect. HAUSU isn't a murder mystery. Where'd they get that from?

Here's the trailer again because it's so damn good.




HAUSU is being broadcast Saturday Nov. 22nd at Midnight and 3am on the IFC Channel. (I think that would make it really late Friday night for those who are staying up, right?)

Link to previous postings.

Link to the IFC Channel's Page.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

ギャランドゥ - The Gyarando

Hi Blog,

One of the running jokes in Japan that I always found funny, but never really got (that's kind of like laughing because everyone else is) is the Gyarando. (aka. ギャランドゥ)

For a country where chest hair is generally a fairly limited prospect there's a joke that a man with a hairy chest has a 'Gyarando.' I never knew where it came from. In fact, I always thought it was a "Gyaran + Do" As in a nice 'hair-do,' that was also known as a 'Gyaran.'

Anyway, I found out some months back that like many slang and jokey expressions in Japanese, this one was rooted in pop culture-- this time it's a 1983 hit pop song by Saijou Hideki (西城 秀樹) called, you guessed it: 「ギャランドゥ」. And thanks to the wonderful time travelling scientists over at YouTube, you can watch a video artifact of it right now. On your computer.

Oh! But first, here's a riddle you can ponder while you watch this video: why does Gyarando refer to chest hair in the first place? Apparently, it's because Saijou Hideki is prancing about with a billowing open shirt, proudly showing off his bare chest-- only, he has no chest hair (as far as I can tell). See for yourself:



Next time you're in Japan, you'll never have to pretend that you know what the whole 'Gyarando' joke is all about. Laugh freely. Go on.

Update! The "Pretty Person" has posted this comment and I find it so educational -- especially the 'boomerang' bit -- that I want to include it in the post. Thanks 'Bijindesu!' (Btw, did you find my posting via YouTube?)
"You are only half right. Galando is is not chest hair, it is the hair on the lower belly.
Hideki wwas wearing speedo when he was on some idol swimming competition shows. His lower belly hair showed up above the speedo, looked like the extension of pubic hair. It was embarrassing for girls to mention it directly. So a singer said on her radio talk show to ask guys with Galando to come for some event. That started the word Galando meanig lower belly hair. Galando is a word created by the song lyricist, made up of "Gal and Do"

Also, Speedo is called "boomerang" in Japan because Hideki wore speedo while he was promoting his hit single "boomerang"

Here's the vid, minus the speedo...


or

Monday, November 10, 2008

One more for Late Bloomer: Roger Ebert is a fan?!

Hi Blog,

Roger Ebert watched Shibata Go's LATE BLOOMER and likes it. Crazy.

"You watch for a while and the movie is tough going. Then it takes hold and you begin identifying with Sumida. He is a bad, bad man. You can sort of understand that."

Link.

Oodles of previous Late Bloomer posts.

Midnighteye review and Shibata Go interview. The first ones in English, btw.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Shogun Assassin! Hannukah, Christmas, or Kwanza - Here's a gift for ya

Hi Blog,

Just got my review copy of this 5-film box set in the mail. It comes in a slip case with fold out packaging ala Homevision's legendary BATTLES WITHOUT HONOR AND HUMANITY box set. The set also includes two essays by Monsieur Patrick Macias: "Samurai and Son - The Making of Shogun Assassin" (this is adapted from the original interview published in Macias' "Tokyo Scope" book, I think) and "The Greatest Team in the History of Mass Slaughter - Three Decades of Shogun Assassin."

But you know what's also cool about this? The fact that Animeigo actually put together full liner notes for this set. You remember those? Back in the day Animeigo's LaserDisc liner notes were the best. They served as a primer, a glossary and a history lesson all in one. I've asked them numerous times why this essential tool was no longer being produced. Answer: money. But I've always felt that people would be willing to pay a little more to get something better in the end. It appears that this box set has made it financial worthwhile for them.

The films look good. They sound good. But are these really the original Lone Wolf and Cubs? Short answer: yes and no. (It is Shogun Assassin, I know) The first two are the famous re-edits of LW&C. Three through five are English language dubs of the films that Animeigo did on their own. In fact the box set includes an on-camera interview with the English dub director Scott Houle. So question is: why don't they include the original Japanese audio tracks with English sub options? They clearly have the subtitles from Animeigo's original LW&C LaserDisc release from way back when. What gives?

No clue, but I do know that the Shogun Assassin DVD releases have been a big seller for Animeigo. I guess the old belief is true that Americans don't like subtitles. Still, having the option would've been nice.

As a final recommendation, I would've had Animego contact Tom Mes at Midnighteye since he was commissioned way back when to write a book on LW&C. Alas, the book never came out. I quite liked it and think that this would've been a good opportunity to get some interesting background into the series as a whole. But truth be told, this is the SHOGUN ASSASSIN collection and not LONE WOLF AND CUB collection. I know. I get it. Still, someone should talk to Mr. Mes about that book... I'm just sayin'...

Oh, and one more thing: there's what looks to be an amazing retrospective of Wakayama Tomisaburo and Katsu Shintaro films at Teatoru Shinjuku (テアトル新宿) starting Nov 11th thru Dec 5th. And yes, you can watch the LW&C flicks in their original celluloid glory. Japanese link here.

Der Eisenrost

Hi Blog,

Back in 1995 when I first went to Japan I found myself in a particularly bad spot. I had no money, I was alone in Tokyo, I knew no one, it was お正月, and I for reasons that are way too complicated to explain here had half of my belongings including my passport and flight ticket stuck over on the other side of the country. In short, I was royally screwed and without a plan.

Now, when you're down and out like this you either roll up into a little ball and give up or you draw power from different sources and fight back. I fought back and drew my power from Japanese film and music. Specifically noise and experimental (industrial) stuff. Things like Tsukamoto Shinya's TETSUO (鉄男) and the music of Ishikawa Chu's (石川忠) band (and Tsukamoto's composer of choice) Der Eisenrost. It was during this trip that I got my hands on my first Der Eisenrost music collection.

Here's quick write-up about the band, that I stole from their website:

"DER EISENROST" are formed back in April 1993 ,And since then, we have been appealing our metal-percussion with heavy rock and punk musical style to audience. In December 1993,Released live and studio mixed CD ;ARMORED WEAPON" from Jpan overseas label..
On December 1995,
D.E.R
released"TOKYO FIST" on CD. It was soundtracks of SHINYA TSUKAMOTO's films"TOKYO FIST". 2 years after, DVD"TOKYO FIST" D.E.R.'s live video by SHINYA TSUKAMOTO special tracks. Live DVD out in 2005.
We playing many club and
musical festival, Some audience said "You are cool and so crazy!" "Your style are only you style!"
In Japan, In 1993-1995 D.E.R .played with Esplendor Geometrico,dive(klink). [MIX2000] was famous big festival with 100 over bands in Sapporo Hokkaido.Joined from U.S. U.K.and many country. [Drive to 2000] 10days about 117bands. D.E.R. proud to join in this special program.DER EISENROST's metal percussion instruments are all made by ISHIKAWA. He has made so many instruments from metal scraps such as engine tank of a truck and wheels of motorbikes. At their live performances, the metallic beats generate more speed and tension than "TETSUO" film.

Of course, I would've loved nothing more than to have actually seen them perform live, but alas I wasn't able to. That said, for many years I've enjoyed Ishikawa's soundtrack work for Tsukamoto. Most recently I finally got around to watching Tsukamoto's entry into the omnibus film FEMALE (his entry is called TAMAMUSHI - 玉虫) and while I will review that soon here, it has a score by Ishikawa Chu that is very reminiscent of SNAKE OF JUNE (六月の蛇). This got me thinking about what ever happened to Ishikawa's band Der Eisenrost? I know that he's been working steadily, but is this band kaput?

No, in fact. It turns out that they're alive and well -- they just played a show at the end of Sept. in Osaka (!!) -- and have a recently updated MySpace page along with an (somewhat) English friendly homepage. Nice!

Listening to these old tracks on MySpace, after all of these years it's amazing to think that these guys are still collaborating and are even making commercially successful films together, like NIGHTMARE DETECTIVE 1 & 2 (悪夢探偵). (Don't know whethere ND2 will be successful or not, but you get what I mean.)

Anyway, here are some links to the Der Eisenrost stuff . Enjoy the music. I find that it makes me want to get to work and kick some ass. (Or get to work, kicking ass.)

Der Eisenrost MySpace link.
Homepage link.

From the wonder that is YouTube comes some videos:





New Liner Notes for Ten Nights of Dreams - Out Now!

Hi Blog,

Woah, it's been over two months since my last update. That's something like 14 months in dog years. (Or about four generations of house flies.) Anyway, I've been busy working a lot lately and have also had family obligations and so, in the meantime, the fun stuff like doing a Japanese film blog has to take a back seat to the 'grown-up' (read: paying) responsibilities.

That's the reason why I'm only now writing about Cinema Epoch's DVD release of TEN NIGHT OF DREAMS (Nikkatsu Corp.) which came out last month. I've got a new set of liner notes on the disc talking about Soseki Natsume and the historical context of the short story collection from which this film was adapted.

The film itself is a mixed bag with some really strong entries and others that are, well, uneven. That said, one the great things about an 'omnibus' collection is the fact that there's plenty of other entries to watch and enjoy. Don't like what you're seeing? Skip it.

Wanna know my highlights of this collection? (In no particular order...)
  • Yamashita Nobuhiro's entry # 8 (幻覚的)
  • Yudai Yamaguchi's entry # 10 (ゲロ的馬鹿に笑いもの)
  • Suzuki Matsuo's entry # 7 (ファンキ)
  • and, perhaps, Shimizu Takashi's entry # 3 (不気味)
Keep in mind that this is one man's opinion. But you won't know unless you check it out.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

TIFF: The Real Shaolin Screening Times!

Hi Blog,

Spent yesterday evening working on a new trailer for The Real Shaolin with director Alexander Lee and a professional trailer-editor [fancy!]. Timed for the Toronto International Film Festival, this trailer was one of the last key elements that Alex had to get squared away before jetting off to the fest first thing this morning. This is a brand-spanking-new trailer for the film that I think rocks a lot more than the previous one-- which was done many months ago in a hurry, very late at night by little elves.

The screening schedule at Toronto is as follows:
All screenings at theater AMC Yonge & Dundas 24
Public Screening 1 (AMC 6)
Sun. 9/7 at 3:45pm

Public Screening 2 (AMC 9)
Weds. 9/10 at 9pm

Public Screening 3 (AMC 9)
Sat. 9/13 at 3:15pm

Yonge Dunda's Square Live Kung Fu Demo: Wed 9/10 at 6:30pm
Unfortunately, I won't be able to attend this fest but I look forward to hearing people's thoughts on the film!

Previous blog postings about the film here.

Newly refurbished The Real Shaolin website!

Sunday, August 31, 2008

9/5/08: Pecha Kucha Presentation at Royal/T in Los Angeles

Hi Blog,

Yeesh, this blog is turning into my personal secretary minus the fingers and phone calling skills but as the title of this blog says, I'll be presenting at the next Pecha Kucha night here in Los Angeles. That'd be on this coming Friday, September the 5th at 20:20 O'Clock.

What is Pecha Kucha? Let's reprint what their site sez:

What is Pecha Kucha Night?

Pecha Kucha Night, devised by Astrid Klein and Mark Dytham (Klein Dytham architecture), was conceived in 2003 as a place for young designers to meet, network, and show their work in public.

But as we all know, give a mike to a designer (especially an architect) and you’ll be trapped for hours. The key to Pecha Kucha Night is its patented system for avoiding this fate. Each presenter is allowed 20 images, each shown for 20 seconds each – giving 6 minutes 40 seconds of fame before the next presenter is up. This keeps presentations concise, the interest level up, and gives more people the chance to show.

Pecha Kucha (which is Japanese for the sound of conversation) has tapped into a demand for a forum in which creative work can be easily and informally shown, without having to rent a gallery or chat up a magazine editor. This is a† demand that seems to be global – as Pecha Kucha Night, without any pushing, has spread virally to over 100 cities across the world. Find a location and join the conversation.

Whelp, I didn't know jack about this whole Pecha Kucha thing until I was asked to participate (or it was firmly suggested that I should) and still have been kind of flying by the seat of my pants on this one but in a last minute desparation as to what the hell I should blab about I've decided to focus on something Japanese film related. (Surprise!) And something from the 60s and 70s! (Double Surprise!!)


Actually there will be some other stuff from more contemporary corridors here, but it seems like a fun thing to do and even though I've just submitted my 20 slides to the curators, I still don't know how or what or どうやって I will put this together. Should be fun though.

At any rate, if you do make it out to the event, please bring soft and spongey foodstuffs to through as they don't hurt as much when you get pelted by them. Thanks and see you there!


Location:
Royal/T
8910 Washington Blvd
Culver City, CA 90232
T 310 559 6300
F 310 559 6633

Friday, August 29, 2008

A Snack to Tide You Over

Hi Blog,

Busy, busy, busy here! Time for a snack!

Only, Jyagariko (aka. じゃがりこ) is like my most-favoritist snack ever and I can't buy it in the US! But then I find out that Calbee, the manufacturers of this awesome snack, has built a factory in the US. So I decide to write them and find out directly.

Here's what I wrote:
Hi,

Calbee's Jyagariko is pretty much my favorite snack food. Whenever I'm in Japan I buy it or when my in-laws come and visit from Japan I ask them to bring some. Furthermore, every American that I've shared it with thinks it's amazing-- not a single person dislikes it!

So here's a question: why can't I find it in the US? I found it very rarely when I lived in NYC at JAS Mart. But now I live in Los Angeles, so why doesn't Nijiya or Marukai stock it?

Thanks!

Nicholas
You know what I love about Japanese manufacturers? They actually respond to these type of queries. And fast too!

Here's what they told me:
Nicholas,

We often receive inquiries regarding where to buy Calbee products that are produced in Japan. Unfortunately, Calbee America does not import products from Japan and cannot locate where to buy those products.

Please feel free to look at our website, www.calbeeamerica.com, for more information about Calbee America Products, which are produced in Fairfield, CA.


Thank you,

Jillian Ayala
Calbee America, Inc.
2600 Maxwell Way
Fairfield, Ca 94534
Well that was useless.

Anyway, if any of you kind souls can advise me as to where I can buy this bitchin' snack in the US (or on-line) I'd appreciate it. In the meantime, I'm waiting my next shipment from Japan, which should be here in about three weeks from now...




Update! No sooner do I make this snippy post, then I was at the Japanese market yesterday and found two types of Jyagariko (Salad flavor = excellent and Cheese flavor = Okay)! Yay!! Question: Was it my prodding or just dumb coincidence?

Saturday, August 16, 2008

New DVD Liner Notes! Yume Ju Ya - Ten Nights of Dreams

Hi Blog,

I guess I must've done something right on my TOKYO DECADENCE DVD liner notes because I was asked by Cinema Epoch to do a set of notes for their upcoming YUME JU YA DVD release (aka. TEN NIGHTS OF DREAMS). This is a 10 director/short film omnibus based on Japanese cultural icon Soseki Natsume's collection of short stories (of the same name).

Additionally, if you live in La-La-Land and are curious to check it out, I'll be introducing the film on opening night, next Friday August 22nd (don't know what time-- will have to post about it later), at the Imaginasian Theater here in Los Angeles. I'm still working on it as we speak, but the talk will likely focus on Soseki with some discussion about the directors chosen to participate. Incidentally, I must say that my old pal Yamashita Nobuhiro's entry (Night Eight) is pretty fantastic.

Oh! And rumor has it that someone important from Nikkatsu will be attending. Info here.



Info about Cinema Epoch's DVD release can be found here. (And hey! Cash burning a hole in your wallet? Pre-order it at Amazon here!)

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Real Shaolin

Hi Blog,

One of the projects, which I worked on and that I've had to keep mum about for the past year and half, is called THE REAL SHAOLIN. It's a documentary that I co-wrote with the director Alexander Sebastien Lee about Shaolin Kung Fu and the allure/mystic that surrounds it. It's a real labor of love by Lee who spent a lot of time, energy and money over the past four (actually almost 5) years making it. We had a great time working together on it and more importantly a good friendship was forged out of it.

So why do I mention it now? That's because THE REAL SHAOLIN's world premier will be at the upcoming Toronto International Film Festival!

Here's Toronto's Press release:
7/29/2008| TIFF Documentaries Explore Worlds Of Youssou Ndour, Valentino, Lebron James, Jimmy Page, Agnès Varda, Eco-Warriors, '68 Rebels, Swingers And More!

Toronto - The Toronto International Film Festival announces 26 documentaries to screen in various programmes as part of TIFF08. One documentary will screen in Mavericks, two will screen as Special Presentations, one as a Masters title, and 22 as part of Real to Reel, showcasing the finest in non-fiction cinema from around the world. Highlights include a look at a fashion master in Valentino: The Last Emperor and a self-portrait of French auteur Agnès Varda in Les Plages d'Agnès. Guitar heroes Jimmy Page, The Edge and Jack White are profiled in It Might Get Loud. Two films, Youssou Ndour: I Bring What I Love and Soul Power, explore the musical exchange between Africa and abroad. Three films examine crusading eco-warriors - controversial Canadian activist Paul Watson in At the Edge of the World, authors Eric Schlosser and Michael Pollan in Food, Inc. and Native Americans of the Hoopa tribe in Upstream Battle. Two films revisit cases of injustice - from the courtrooms of California in Witch Hunt to a tarnished legacy in Israel in Killing Kasztner. Several films intersect with various sports, including kung fu masters in The Real Shaolin and LeBron James's high school basketball team in More Than a Game. Two films have the backdrop of Ivy League schools in the tumultuous year of 1968, with Tommy Lee Jones playing college football in Harvard Beats Yale 29-29 and student strikers at Columbia University in A Time to Stir. Not to mention the sexual revolution uncovered in American Swing.

"Documentary-making continues to flourish," says Thom Powers, Documentary and Mavericks Programmer. "Every year there are more films that command the big screen. There has been a short-sighted focus on the recent lack of a documentary blockbuster. In the larger picture, more docs are getting funded and released theatrically than ever before."

Now live at tiff08.ca/blogs, the Festival's Doc Blog returns to offer visitors all of the exciting details and comprehensive information surrounding this year's inspired non-fiction films, and will feature contributions from programmers and filmmakers alike. Ticket packages now on sale. Purchase online at tiff08.ca, by phone at 416-968-FILM or 1-877-968-FILM or in person at the Festival Box Office at Manulife Centre, 55 Bloor Street West (main floor, north entrance). Box Office hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Saturday. The 33rd Toronto International Film Festival runs September 4 through 13, 2008.
And here's a link to THE REAL SHAOLIN's webpage. It's kind of slow loading and a bit out of date, but I think that'll be rectified soon. There's more to tell, but I'll save it all for a later date!

I'm very happy about this!!

Sunday, July 20, 2008

New DVD Liner Notes! Tokyo Decadence

Hi Blog,

Haven't had much chance to post on the old blog-o lately and it might continue to be quiet around here for a little while longer. But I wanted to announce that I have a new set of DVD liner notes coming out; this time on Cinema Epoch's August 4th, 2008 release of Murakami Ryu's TOKYO DECADENCE.**

I'm actually really impressed on how fast Cinema Epoch's turnaround was on this release. I turned in my liner notes back at the start of June and I already have my gratis copies. 本当にすげーな!!

Murakami's film is kind of a classic and if you haven't seen it, it's a particularly interesting window into the immediate post-bubble chaos and uncertainty in Tokyo. Oh and to all of those jonesed pervs on Amazon who give the film one or no stars because it isn't very sexy: Ha!

From Cinema Epoch's description:
Long out of print, the cult classic returns to DVD! A timid Japanese college girl, Ai, tries to make ends meet as a S&M bondage girl for hire within a world of wealthy businessmen & lavish Tokyo penthouses. Her quest for true love and happiness contrasts with the dark nighttime in Tokyo, ridden with perverse sex and drugs. From the writer of "Audition.




** Of note, the plot description on Wikipedia for TOKYO DECADENCE is incorrect. Ignore it.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Bone House Asia Presents: LATE BLOOMER

Hi Blog,

Ijichi-san over at Tidepoint Pictures sends me news of a new DVD label Bone House Asia and Late Bloomer's US release. I wrote about my pal Shibata Go's film Late Bloomer NYC screening before (here) but it's now been confirmed as happening at the Pioneer Theater in NYC from July 25-31st!

So if you're not at the San Diego Comic Con and are in NYC, then don't dally! See the fucking movie! Also, if you're interested in having it play in your area-- and if you are a theater owner/programmer or whatnot-- then contact Ijichi-san via the Tidepoint Pictures website. I know he's still looking for more venues.

The cover for the Late Bloomer DVD is above.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Bumming... WaiWai gone Bye-Bye

Hi Blog,

Some downer news here. Mainichi Daily news has canned it's brilliant WaiWai column. For those who didn't know about it, you missed out on the goofy dregs of shoddy Japanese tabloid journalism brilliantly translated by Mainichi editor Ryan Connell. Today I shed a tear for unsubstantiated sleaze reporting from Japan in English.... Guess I'll have to settle for this.

Thanks to Japan Probe for the bumming news... (More info available there...)

Saturday, June 21, 2008

NYTimes: URA in NYC - Wakamatsu Koji Article

Hi Blog,

There's an article on Wakamatsu Koji in today's NYTimes. Link here.

Over all a good bit of PR for Wakamatsu-san and his roundly praised film UNITED RED ARMY. However, I have a bit of an issue with author film critic Dennis Lim's line about pinku eiga being something to grow out of.

Snip:
At 72, having outgrown the smut-minded confines of the pink film, he has made his most ambitious work, “United Red Army,” a 190-minute chronicle of the tumultuous rise and self-destructive collapse of the Japanese militant student groups of the 1960s and ’70s...
Okay Mr. Lim, if you say so. As if filmmakers like Wakamatsu or Kurosawa Kiyoshi were slumming and doing these films because they suffered arrested development. Maybe Wakamatsu should've grown up sooner and not at 72?

It's showing as part of the New York Asian Film Festival in conjunction with New York's Japan Society's Japan Cuts '08 festival. (July 6th at 4pm) I have a screener sitting here begging to be watched. I just need 190 minutes to do so...

Midnighteye interview with Wakamatsu here.
video

Friday, June 20, 2008

New Yorkers! New York Asian Film Festival '08 Starts Today!

Hi Blog!

The title says it all. Arguably the best Asian film fest in the US -- and there's some bias there since they're my pals running it -- starts today in NYC. Running until the 3rd of July, if you live in NYC or anywhere remotely nearby, I highly recommend you catch some films at the NYAFF.



Full schedule is here.

Good luck Grady, Goran, Brian, Dan and Marc! I hope this year's fest crushes New York like iddy-biddy taxis under Godzilla's feet!

Friday, June 13, 2008

New Liver? One Million for the Visa, $100,000 for the Hospital


Hi Blog,

Today's LA Times On-line has a new article on the spate of Yakuza who either came or tried to come to LA for liver surgeries. I previously wrote about this brouhaha here, but this article is of interest for these reasons:

  • Two of the patients donated $100,000 each to UCLA within months of their surgeries, although hospital officials say no preferential treatment was given in exchange for the gifts.
  • Busuttil [ Note: He's the legendary liver transplant surgeon who performed Yakuza leader Goto's surgery ] did not directly address whether he wrote a letter to the embassy on Inagawa's behalf but said he believes that "individuals seeking a U.S. visa for medical treatment are required to substantiate their application with supporting documentation such as a doctor's letter. If I am asked by a referring doctor to provide such a written medical assessment for a person in dire need of lifesaving medical treatment, I do so."

    The U.S. State Department confirmed that it requires such a letter.

    Busuttil went on to say: "I believe it is unethical to discriminate among patients on the basis of nonmedical factors. . . . The healthcare professionals in our liver transplant program have saved the lives of nearly 5,000 babies, children and adults from all walks of life, and of varying nationalities and economic status."
Sorry to interrupt but I have to comment here: "5,000 babies, children and adults from all walks of life..." Seriously? So are there Yakuza babies?
  • The Westwood medical center had developed a reputation among Japanese organized crime figures as the place to go to for transplants, two of the three sources said. Its appeal grew after Tadamasa Goto, whom law enforcement officials identify as a powerful gang leader, received a new liver at UCLA in 2001 and returned to Japan looking healthy and vibrant, they said.
"UCLA became the place," said the lawyer, who specializes in finance and has extensive knowledge of gangs in Japan. "That's how these guys think. One guy does something, the rest of them want to do it."
One stop shopping...

And here's what a former FBI agent that was involved in the visa petitioning process for a Yakuza who wanted to come into the states had to say about his involvement:
  • "I went to the American Embassy and said, 'This gentleman is trying to get into the United States for surgery. He's willing to make a large donation to the hospital that lets him in. I suspect he has some nefarious connections, and you tell me if you want him to come in or not,' " Revell said.
"They came back and said, 'We are not interested in his coming in, irrespective of the amount of money that he might contribute' " to a hospital or the type of information he was willing to provide.
"Gentleman?" Wow. By the way, I like that he makes a point of mentioning the large potential donation that the Yakuza would make to the hospital -- as if that would sweeten the deal.

More of this brilliance can be read here.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

And his family hates him...

Hi Blog,

Of interest?

Snip:

Guinness certifies Japanese TV host as the world's busiest

AP Photo
AP Photo

TOKYO (AP) -- Flick through a few channels on Japanese TV and Monta Mino is most likely there. And the world's most prolific television presenter, who just broke his own record for the most hours of live television in one week, says he wants to work even more.

Mino, whose real name is Norio Minorikawa, received a Guinness World Record certificate Thursday acknowledging his 22 hours and 15 seconds of live TV broadcasts in April. He broke the previous record - also set by Mino in November 2006 - of 21 hours and 42 minutes.

In counting the hours for the record, Guinness included Mino's appearances on various live shows on several TV channels.

The hyperactive 63-year-old, who claims he only needs four hours of sleep every night, hosts 11 TV programs, including news shows, talk shows, wildlife shows and quiz shows, and appears on television every day of the week except Sunday. But apparently that isn't enough.

"How about a live show on Sunday?" Mino said at Thursday's award-giving ceremony at Nippon Television Network Corp., where he hosts an early morning news program. (link.)

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

The MACHINE GIRL California Roll!

MACHINE GIRL
(aka. Kataude Machine Girl)

Dir. Noboru Iguchi

Cast:
Minase Yashiro
Ryôji Okamoto
Kentaro Shimazu
Taro Suwa
Asami
Honoka
Yûya Ishikawa

Year: 2008

Format Viewed: DVD

Hi Blog!

So what can I say? MACHINE GIRL absolutely, positively does not need my review -- nor any review for that matter -- because it is essentially critic proof. Pulled from the same brackish waters as the Rodriguez/Tarantino GRINDHOUSE double feature (replete with Bruce Lee yellow and black jump suit font via Tarantino's pop cultural rejiggering) Noboru Iguchi's MACHINE GIRL is an attempt to be knowingly sleazy and exploitative and in doing so, give the audience what they want: sailor suits, geysers of blood and heaps of shot up people that look like poorly masticated hamburger. But the question you should be asking yourself, if you're a curious soul like me is: exactly who is the audience for this film? Japanese? Non-Japanese?

But before I get into that, let me tell you what the "The One-Armed Machine Girl" is all about.

Ami plays basketball, can do a li'l bit of Karate, and looks good in a sailor outfit. In fact, she's so damn sexy that even her circle of femme friends lust after her. But did you know that Ami also has a high school aged brother named Yu? Fortunately for Ami, Yu doesn't mess up Ami's cuteness by being ugly and together they laugh and shadow box with each other; personifying the best in filial love. But alas, behind that cute smile all is not well in Yu-land because he's a giant puss. Like flies to fecal matter, the bullies are attracted to Yu and want to kick his ass 10 ways from Sunday and this, it turns out, is where the story comes from.

Yu, together with his nerdy friend Takashi, are receiving the rough treatment from a group of high school hoods headed by the spoiled rotten son of the notorious Hattori Hanzo/Yakuza/Ninja/I-don't-quite-know-what-the-fuck-they-are gang. But hold up! There's more to the back story it seems. As it turns out, Ami and Yu have been walking around with a cosmic kick-me sign on them. They've got a vortex of bad luck around them and their brief moments of happiness are in actuality superficial displays masking deep emotional scarring. Taking a page from Lemony Snicket, Ami and Yu's folks are dead having committed suicide after suffering the burden of an erroneous murder rap (never explored, nor explained). (Incidentally, this strikes me as incredibly selfish of their parents but it's good for character motivation so I'll go with it.) At any rate, imagine the pain that Ami suffers when Yu is killed by the evil high school yakuza brat and his evil cohorts! She's inconsolable and revenge becomes her modus operandi.

Alas, cuteness has its limitations and Ami has zero luck tracking down her brother's (and Takashi's) killers. Fortunately, through some luck and cleverly placed deus ex machina, Ami discovers Yu's diary where he'd helpfully scrawled the names of the bullies. Voila! We now have a revenge film. Tracking down these assholes, Ami discovers that it's very much 'nurture' and not 'nature' that has turned these kids into murderous little shits; soon enough Ami is mutilating the various parents too. Cue fights and carnage which all leads to a creative and yet somehow contrived (or is it forced?) gore set-piece that culminates in Yu losing her left arm. But being the hero, Ami doesn't bleed to death and in her stupor she conveniently stumbles into Yu's dead pal Takashi's folk's garage who, in a amusing subversion of audience expectation, turn out to be former bosozoku lovers with a knack for auto mechanics and metal shop. Crafting a gatling gun that can mount on Ami's arm she becomes the titular "Machine Girl" and soon is mowing down dinks by the dozens (or half-dozens), leaving pureed bodies in her wake. (Nerd question: is it really possible to miss that badly when shooting a gatling gun in close quarers?)

A month or so back I wrote a bit about a talk I gave at the Japan Film Festival. In it I argued that Hollywood's remakes Asian horror to look and feel like Japanese horror-- even when the original source material isn't from Japan-- is tantamount to claiming that a California Roll is Japanese food even though it isn't. Further more, this packaging of the films as Japanese-like has fostered an expectation in the audience that is incorrect and as a result is forcing filmmakers to produce more works that are simulacra of what is thought to be Japanese. I called this the California Roll as film because just as California rolls aren't wa-shoku it has become what people in the west consider part of a typical Japanese meal.

Ladies and gentlemen guess what? I think what we have here with MACHINE GIRL is a perfect example of a Japanese crew making a California Roll explicitly for the foreign market. (Or would that be for the domestic market in the US?) MACHINE GIRL's production financing (and I don't know the exact break down here so bear with me here) came in part from Media Blasters (aka. Tokyo Shock) via their Fever Dreams production arm. I would argue that the aim of a film like this as judge by the kind of film it is (low-budget Japanese exploitation), to the elements used (High School girls! Sailor outfits! weapons! Gore!) were all deliberately calculated to maximize the satisfaction of the intended audience and thereby Media Blasters profits.

Don't get me wrong here; this isn't a criticism of good business per se and in fact knowing who your audience is and actually delivering in large part on the promised film is no small feat. MACHINE GIRL does so, I think. I do think that the film needed some nudity in it, because a true exploitation leaves no grimy stone unturned. (Besides, why would you hire an AV starlet like Asami and NOT use some of her goods? That's like hiring, I dunno, Orson Welles and having his keep his mouth shut.)

But as much as I had fun watching this film, there's something incredibly odd about it: it doesn't feel like I'm watching a Japanese exploitation film that has somehow lucked out and gotten a DVD release here in the US. It feels like someone had watched a bunch of gonzo Miike Takashi films and one or two Sono Sion flicks said, "Shit we can do that!" and forked over a 150,000 clams to get it made. To put it another way, it felt as authentic as the Kill Bill did to the Asian films Tarantino was making love to. The key difference here is that MACHINE GIRL has been made in large part by Japanese people. But somehow it still chafes; it doesn't fit right. It feels like a Japanese chef has been hired to prepare food that is thought to be Japanese food, but really isn't.

All in all, I enjoyed the film enough. It vacillates between some smart filmmaking (the high school ninja club attacks!) and some incredibly embarrassing production short-comings (Halloween cobwebs and spiders production design?) but for a silly night out it's all right. But I can't shake the feeling that this film could have been better. How? I think ultimately it should've come down to less Tarantino cliche and more expectation subversion. The school girl thing is cute, I guess, but it's played out. Less California Rolls and more regional fare, please.

Here's, like, a BILLION links to MACHINE GIRL via Twitchfilm.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Liver

Hi Blog,

Okay tough guy. Here's the deal: You think that being a lowly Yakuza is easy? That even down in the lower-ranks of Chinpira-dom that all of that strong-arming, gani-mata de aruku, smoking, womanizing and boozing is easy? Sure, punch perms and sorikomi fads come and go, but the irezumi is for life. Right?

Well, it turns out that if you live life to the Über-Yakuza fullest-- and don't get off-ed in the process-- you'll start falling apart anyway. But if you've got enough money and are willing to shill some soft tips to the FBI you can stroll on into the US and get that much needed liver transplant to get you right back onto the road of drinkin' and hard livin'. (Diabetes, though is another story since they haven't figured out a surgery for that.)

Got 10 minutes? Read these articles on the UCLA liver transplant service for the needy and sick Yakuza. And for the record, just like Dr. Busuttil, I'm not passing judgement here. I don't do that. I just report what I see without prejudice.

Oh, and if you're still around then definitely read Jake Adelstein's opinion piece from the May 11th Washington Post (pasted at the bottom of this post) where he talks about being a beat journalist for the Yomiuri Shinbun who reported on the Yakuza and how his reporting about said UCLA liver transplants lead to death threats against he and his family.

Omoshiroi...

From the LA Times:

Four Japanese gang figures received livers at UCLA

The recipients included one of Japan's most powerful crime bosses. Some in the medical community worry the revelation will have a chilling effect on organ donations.

By John M. Glionna and Charles Ornstein
Los Angeles Times Staff Writers

May 30, 2008

UCLA Medical Center and its most accomplished liver surgeon provided a life-saving transplant to one of Japan's most powerful gang bosses, law enforcement sources told The Times.

In addition, the surgeon performed liver transplants at UCLA on three other men who are now barred from entering the United States because of their criminal records or suspected affiliation with Japanese organized crime groups, said a knowledgeable law enforcement official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The four surgeries were done between 2000 and 2004 at a time of pronounced organ scarcity. In each of those years, more than 100 patients died awaiting liver transplants in the greater Los Angeles region.

The surgeon in each case was Dr. Ronald W. Busuttil, executive chairman of UCLA's surgery department, according to another person familiar with the matter who also spoke on condition of anonymity. Busuttil is a world-renowned liver surgeon who co-edited a leading text on liver transplantation and is one of the highest-paid employees in the University of California system.

There is no evidence that UCLA or Busuttil knew at the time of the transplants that any of the patients had ties to Japanese gangs, commonly called yakuza. Both said in statements that they do not make moral judgments about patients and treat them based on their medical need.

U.S. transplant rules do not prohibit hospitals from performing transplants on either foreign patients or those with criminal histories.

The most prominent transplant recipient, Tadamasa Goto, had been barred from entering the United States because of his criminal history, several current and former law enforcement officials said. Goto leads a gang called the Goto-gumi that experts describe as vindictive and at times brutal.

The FBI helped Goto obtain a visa to enter the United States in 2001 in exchange for leads on potentially illegal activity in this country by Japanese criminal gangs, said Jim Stern, retired chief of the FBI's Asian criminal enterprise unit in Washington.

Goto got his liver, Stern said, but provided the bureau with little useful information on Japanese gangs.

"I don't think Goto gave the bureau anything of significance," Stern said. Goto "came to the States and got a liver and was laughing back to where he came from. . . . It defies logic."

Although Stern was not involved with the deal, he said he learned the details when he became unit chief in 2004 and continues to be troubled by what happened.

After the transplant, Goto was again barred from reentering the United States, said the first law enforcement official who was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and therefore requested anonymity.

But Goto continued to receive medical care from Busuttil in Japan. The doctor traveled there and examined Goto on more than one occasion, said Goto's Tokyo-based lawyer, Yoshiyuki Maki -- and evaluated Goto while he was in custody in 2006.

Busuttil's medical opinion was cited in a successful court petition to have Goto released for medical care at a Tokyo hospital, Maki said.

The Times is not naming the other three transplant recipients in this article because neither they nor their lawyers could be reached.

Several transplant experts and bioethicists contacted by The Times said they were troubled by the transplants, especially because organs are in such short supply in this country. In the year of Goto's surgery, 186 people in the Los Angeles region died waiting for a liver, U.S. transplant statistics show.

Some, but not all, of the experts said a transplant center has an obligation to determine whether a patient would be a worthy custodian of an organ and to protect potential donors' faith in the system.

"If you want to destroy public support for organ donation on the part of Americans, you'd be hard pressed to think of a practice that would be better suited," said Arthur Caplan, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania.

In a statement, the UCLA Health System said it could not comment on specific cases because of federal patient privacy laws. Generally, it said it complies with all the rules and regulations of the United Network for Organ Sharing, the federal contractor charged with ensuring the safety and fairness of the U.S. transplant system. Last year, UCLA performed more liver transplants than any other U.S. hospital.

"UCLA's processes for evaluating a patient -- both for mental and physical suitability for organ transplants -- are the same regardless of whether the individual is a U.S. citizen or a foreign national," the statement said.

Hospitals and doctors in the United States have the final say on which patients get added to their waiting lists and have the discretion to refuse patients with unhealthy lifestyles that could compromise the transplant's success. Patients may be refused on other grounds as well, including an inability to pay.

At the time of Goto's transplant, liver allocations were made based on both a patient's medical status and waiting time. Since 2002, livers have been allocated to patients based almost entirely on how sick they are.

It is unclear when Goto joined UCLA's waiting list. He had been in the United States two months when he received a new liver. Overall, 34% of the patients added to UCLA's liver waiting list between January 1999 and December 2001 received a new liver within three years of being listed, national transplant statistics show.

Busuttil, a former president of the American Society of Transplant Surgeons who has testified before Congress on who should receive priority for transplants, released his own statement this week. He did not directly address the transplants of the Japanese patients but said in part:

"As a surgeon, it is not my role to pass moral judgment on the patients who seek my care . . . . If one of my patients, domestic or international, were in a situation that could be life-threatening, of course I would do everything in my power to assure that they would receive proper care.

"I consider that to be part of my responsibility and obligation as a physician."

'A serious player'

On May 18, 2001, Tadamasa Goto boarded Japan Airlines Flight 0062 at Narita International Airport, bound for Los Angeles with his son Masato.

Goto, now 65, had hepatitis C and was worried it would develop into cancer, Maki, Goto's lawyer, said in an interview last week in his Tokyo office. Because Japan has an extreme shortage of organ donors, many sick patients feel they need to go abroad to seek treatment.

The FBI did not help Goto arrange his surgery with UCLA but did help him gain entry to this country, Stern said. The agency had long been frustrated by the reluctance of Japanese law enforcement to share information on yakuza members in the United States.

"For American law enforcement, it's been like pulling teeth to get criminal intelligence from Japanese authorities," said David Kaplan, a journalist who co-wrote the book "Yakuza: Japan's Criminal Underworld," published in 2003 by University of California Press.

In his book, Kaplan describes Goto's gang, the Goto-gumi, as an offshoot of the largest Japanese organized crime group, the Yamaguchi-gumi. In an interview, Kaplan said Goto is "a serious player in the yakuza. His gang is known for being particularly ruthless and violent."

A senior member of the group and an affiliated gang member were sentenced to prison for the 1992 slashing of a Japanese director whose film portrayed the yakuza as violent thugs, according to a story in the Japan Times. Goto was not personally implicated in the case.

Goto underwent a successful transplant in July 2001. He received the liver of a young man who died in a traffic accident, Maki said. "Goto is over 60 now, but his liver is young," he said.

Several years after the transplant, in May 2006, Goto was arrested in Japan on suspicion of real estate fraud.

Maki said he and other lawyers worried their client was not well enough to be interrogated. In addition to his liver problem, Goto was suffering from heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes.

The lawyers asked that Goto be released immediately, but authorities rejected the request, Maki said. He said the lawyers asked that Goto be given his medication at precise times, but that did not happen either.

"Goto lost his appetite, had a terrible headache, scratched his arm until it started to get infected, and he was throwing up," Maki said.

Maki used the interview to vent against Japanese prosecutors, saying he believes they were attempting to exploit his client's poor health to obtain a conviction on what Maki considered groundless charges.

He said Busuttil, along with doctors from Tokyo University Hospital and Showa University Hospital in Tokyo, examined Goto in jail and recommended that he be released for outside medical treatment.

On May 24, 2006, some 16 days after he was arrested, the court temporarily released Goto and he entered the hospital.

Goto was acquitted of the charges in March of this year.

"The UCLA doctor [Busuttil] examined Goto during his detention and again one week after he received his not-guilty ruling," Maki said.

The law enforcement official who spoke on condition of anonymity said Goto's criminal history includes prison time. But Maki said his client's last conviction was three decades ago, for assault, and that his previous convictions were as a youth.

Court records in Japan are kept by prosecutors who generally do not share them with anyone not party to a case.

Jake Adelstein, a former reporter at Japan's largest daily newspaper, Yomiuri Shimbun, said he received a tip about the circumstances surrounding Goto's liver transplant in 2005. Within days of making inquiries, however, Adelstein was visited by men who told him: "Erase the story or be erased," he said in an interview.

Adelstein did not pursue the story but mentioned the incident in a recent opinion piece in the Washington Post. He said he would elaborate on it in a forthcoming book.

Dealing with scandals

Word of the surgeries at UCLA comes as the U.S. transplant system is slowly recovering from scandals that forced the closure of three transplant programs in California. In one of those, St. Vincent Medical Center in Los Angeles moved a Saudi national up a liver waiting list, bypassing dozens of others, and then covered it up by falsifying paperwork, officials there have acknowledged.

Overseers of the U.S. transplant system say they are unaware of other cases in which hospitals have provided organs to foreign criminals. But some hospitals, including Stanford University Medical Center, have performed transplants on U.S. prisoners -- often controversial because taxpayers foot the bill.

According to the ethics committee of the United Network for Organ Sharing, "one's status as a prisoner should not preclude them from consideration for a transplant."

The United Network for Organ Sharing encourages transplant programs to give foreign recipients less than 5% of organs from deceased donors each year, but the figure is not a hard-and-fast rule. At one point, in the 1980s, the threshold was 10%, but it was lowered after Congress considered banning transplants for foreign nationals entirely.

Centers that exceed the 5% guideline are asked for an explanation in writing, but none has been sanctioned publicly. In 2001, the year Goto received his transplant, UCLA slightly exceeded the guideline.

Typically, transplant experts say, foreigners cannot receive transplants at U.S. centers unless they are willing to pay the full cost of the procedure out of pocket -- without the substantial discounts given to insurers. Charges for a liver transplant and immediate follow-up care generally exceed $523,000, according to an April report by Milliman Inc., an actuarial firm.

It could not be determined how much UCLA and Busuttil were paid for the Japanese transplants.

Tom Mone, chief executive of OneLegacy, the group responsible for procuring and distributing organs in much of Southern California, said transplants for foreign criminals are "an unfortunate result of a system that's magnanimous to the world."

Mone also said that hospitals do not have the resources to investigate their patients. "The enforcement should be at the borders, not at the hospital," he said.

In recent years, nonresident foreign nationals have accounted for less than 1% of all transplant recipients nationwide, transplant statistics show.

Dr. Mark Fox, associate director of the Oklahoma Bioethics Center, said the UCLA transplants may create pressure to eliminate transplants for foreign nationals entirely, which Fox said he does not support.

"For some people, there are misgivings for transplanting foreign nationals at all. For some people, there are misgivings about transplanting criminals at all," he said. "When you put those two together, it is certainly reasonable to expect that a certain portion of the population would say, 'This is not what I expected when I signed my donor card.' " (link.)

From the Washington Post Opinion Page:

This Mob Is Big in Japan

By Jake Adelstein
Sunday, May 11, 2008; B02

I have spent most of the past 15 years in the dark side of the rising sun. Until three years ago, I was a crime reporter for the Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan's largest newspaper, and covered a roster of characters that included serial killers who doubled as pet breeders, child pornographers who abducted junior high-school girls, and the John Gotti of Japan.

I came to Japan in 1988 at age 19, spent most of college living in a Zen Buddhist temple, and then became the first U.S. citizen hired as a regular staff writer for a Japanese newspaper in Japanese. If you know anything about Japan, you'll realize how bizarre this is -- a gaijin, or foreigner, covering Japanese cops. When I started the beat in the early 1990s, I knew nothing about the yakuza, a.k.a. the Japanese mafia. But following their prostitution rings and extortion rackets became my life.

Most Americans think of Japan as a law-abiding and peaceful place, as well as our staunch ally, but reporting on the underworld gave me a different perspective. Mobs are legal entities here. Their fan magazines and comic books are sold in convenience stores, and bosses socialize with prime ministers and politicians. And as far as the United States is concerned, Japan may be refueling U.S. warships at sea, but it's not helping us fight our own battles against organized crime -- a realization that led to my biggest scoop.

I loved my job. The cops fighting organized crime are hard-drinking iconoclasts -- many look like their mobster foes, with their black suits and slicked-back hair. They're outsiders in Japanese society, and perhaps because I was an outsider too, we got along well. The yakuza's tribal features are also compelling, like those of an alien life form: the full-body tattoos, missing digits and pseudo-family structure. I became so fascinated that, like someone staring at a wild animal, I got too close and now am worried for my life. But more on that later.

The Japanese National Police Agency (NPA) estimates that the yakuza have almost 80,000 members. The most powerful faction, the Yamaguchi-gumi, is known as "the Wal-Mart of the yakuza" and reportedly has close to 40,000 members. In Tokyo alone, the police have identified more than 800 yakuza front companies: investment and auditing firms, construction companies and pastry shops. The mobsters even set up their own bank in California, according to underworld sources.

Over the last seven years, the yakuza have moved into finance. Japan's Securities and Exchange Surveillance Commission has an index of more than 50 listed companies with ties to organized crime. The market is so infested that Osaka Securities Exchange officials decided in March that they would review all listed companies and expel those found to have links with the yakuza. If you think this has nothing to do with the United States, think again. Americans have billions of dollars in the Japanese stock market. So U.S. investors could be funding the Japanese mob.

I once asked a detective from Osaka why, if Japanese law enforcement knows so much about the yakuza, the police don't just take them down. "We don't have a RICO Act," he explained. "We don't have plea-bargaining, a witness-protection program or witness-relocation program. So what we end up doing most of the time is just clipping the branches. . . . If the government would give us the tools, we'd shut them down, but we don't have 'em."

In the good old days, the yakuza made most of their money from sleaze: prostitution, drugs, protection money and child pornography. Kiddie porn is still part of their base income -- and another area where Japan isn't acting like America's friend.

In 1999, my editors assigned me to cover the Tokyo neighborhood that includes Kabukicho, Japan's largest red-light district. Japan had recently outlawed child pornography -- reluctantly, after international pressure left officials no choice. But the ban, which is still in effect, had a major flaw: It criminalized producing and selling child pornography, not owning it. So the big-money industry goes on, unabated. Last month's issue of a widely available porn magazine proclaimed, "Our Cover Girl Is Our Youngest Yet: 14!" Kabukicho remains loaded with the stuff, and teenage sex workers are readily available. I've even seen specialty stores that sell the underwear worn by teenage strippers.

The ban is so weak that investigating yakuza who peddle child pornography is practically impossible. "The United States has referred hundreds of . . . cases to Japanese law enforcement authorities," a U.S. embassy spokesman recently told me. "Without exception, U.S. officials have been told that the Japanese police cannot open an investigation because possession is legal." In 2007, the Internet Hotline Center in Japan identified more than 500 local sites displaying child pornography.

There's talk in Japan of criminalizing simple possession, but some political parties (and publishers, who are raking in millions) oppose the idea. U.S. law enforcement officers want to stop the flow of yakuza-produced child porn into the United States and would support such a law. But they can't even keep the yakuza themselves out of the country. Why? Because the national police refuse to share intelligence. Last year, a former FBI agent told me that, in a decade of conferences, the NPA had turned over the names and birthdates of about 50 yakuza members. "Fifty out of 80,000," he said.

This lack of cooperation was partly responsible for an astonishing deal made with the yakuza, and for the story that changed my life. On May 18, 2001, the FBI arranged for Tadamasa Goto -- a notorious Japanese gang boss, the one that some federal agents call the "John Gotti of Japan" -- to be flown to the United States for a liver transplant.

Goto is alive today because of that operation -- a source of resentment among Japanese law enforcement officials because the FBI organized it without consulting them. From the U.S. point of view, it was a necessary evil. The FBI had long suspected the yakuza of laundering money in the United States, and Japanese and U.S. law enforcement officials confirm that Goto offered to tip them off to Yamaguchi-gumi front companies and mobsters in exchange for the transplant. James Moynihan, then the FBI representative in Tokyo who brokered the deal, still defends the operation. "You can't monitor the activities of the yakuza in the United States if you don't know who they are," he said in 2007. "Goto only gave us a fraction of what he promised, but it was better than nothing."

The suspicions about the Yamaguchi-gumi were confirmed in the fall of 2003, when special agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), whom I've interviewed, tracked down several million dollars deposited in U.S. casino accounts and banks by Susumu Kajiyama, a boss known as "the Emperor of Loan Sharks." The agents said they had not received a lead from the Tokyo police; they got some of the information while looking back at the Goto case.

Unlike their Japanese counterparts, U.S. law enforcement officers are sharing tips with Japan. Officials from both countries confirm that, in November 2003, the Tokyo police used information from ICE and the Nevada Gaming Control Board to seize $2 million dollars in cash from a safe-deposit box in Japan, which was leased to Kajiyama by a firm affiliated with a major Las Vegas casino. According to ICE Special Agent Mike Cox, the Kajiyama saga was probably not an isolated incident. "If we had some more information from the Japan side," he told me last year, "I'm sure we'd find other cases like it."

I'm not entirely objective on the issue of the yakuza in my adopted homeland. Three years ago, Goto got word that I was reporting an article about his liver transplant. A few days later, his underlings obliquely threatened me. Then came a formal meeting. The offer was straightforward. "Erase the story or be erased," one of them said. "Your family too."

I knew enough to take the threat seriously. So I took some advice from a senior Japanese detective, abandoned the scoop and resigned from the Yomiuri Shimbun two months later. But I never forgot the story. I planned to write about it in a book, figuring that, with Goto's poor health, he'd be dead by the time it came out. Otherwise, I planned to clip out the business of his operation at the last minute.

I didn't bargain on the contents leaking out before my book was released, which is what happened last November. Now the FBI and local law enforcement are watching over my family in the States, while the Tokyo police and the NPA look out for me in Japan. I would like to go home, but Goto has a reputation for taking out his target and anyone else in the vicinity.

In early March, in my presence, an FBI agent asked the NPA to provide a list of all the members of Goto's organization so that they could stop them from coming into the country and killing my family. The NPA was reluctant at first, citing "privacy concerns," but after much soul-searching handed over about 50 names. But the Tokyo police file lists more than 900 members. I know this because someone posted the file online in the summer of 2007; a Japanese detective was fired because of the leak.

Of course, I'm a little biased. I don't think it's selfish of me to value the safety of my family more than the personal privacy of crooks. And as a crime reporter, I'm baffled that the Japanese don't share intelligence on the yakuza with the United States.

Then again, perhaps I'm being unreasonable. Maybe some powerful Japanese are simply ashamed of how strong the yakuza have become. And if they're not ashamed, they should be. (link.)