Saturday, April 09, 2005

Book review: "Confessions of a Yakuza"

This is my first book review on this blog, and it's a doozy. It's Confessions of a Yakuza, the English translation of Asakusa Bakuto Ichidai (The Life of an Asakusa Gambler). ("Asakusa" was one of the largest entertainment districts in prewar Tokyo.)

This book is a "memoir" of sorts, a biographical tale of a retired yakuza as dictated to his doctor. This man is a "yakuza" in the word's original sense--a professional gambler, not the organized gangsters that the word is used to refer to today.

The ex-yakuza in this story, as he tells his tale over the months, knows he is slowly dying. He starts to see the doctor, a general practitioner in a quiet suburban neighborhood, when he realizes that is body is really starting to fall apart. His doctor knows the man's in a bad way, but he replies with optimistic predictions when his patient asks things like, "I don't have much time left, do I?"

Over several visits, the doctor realizes what a hard and amazing life the man has led. He asks to interview him for a book, and the yazuka agrees. The doctor then deals with a range of emotions: a desire even he doesn't understand to record the man's tale and tell it to the world, a sense of urgency due to his knowledge of the man's health, and an awareness of the need not to pester the old man with daily visits and long interviews. (This hesitance may arise from a healthy respect for the still-formidable old man.)

Anyone looking for graphically violent and prurient tales about modern-day Japanese gangsters robbing banks and shooting at each other will be greatly disappointed--although there is some violence. The most fascinating aspect of this novel is its portrayal of how people interacted with each other so much differently back then--ways we would consider cryptic today, hiding their emotions, putting up with insults, acting with almost subservient humility to save face for their companions or organization. Putting on a brave face when faced with amazing adversity.

(Plus, even though this book is a translation, you'd never know it. The translation is seamless, and written in a style that's perfect for the story.)

An interesting aspect of the book that is interspersed among the remembrances and also propelling them along are brief passages that describe the situation in which a particular day's interview was conducted--for instance, whether the ex-gambler was in good spirits that day, whether his wife was in the room, whether it was late at night.

The book is also fascinating for its portrayal of the reality and inevitability of getting old. There are sharp contrasts between the young man's boundless courage and energy and the old man's labored breathing and creaky joints.

Finally, what's touching about the story two men's shared desire to get his story recorded and told. The doctor told his patient right from the outset that the reason for the interviews was to write a book about them. So many of the old man's acquaintances were dead, and he didn't seem the type to want to impress people anyway, that it's unlikely that fame or recognition were his motivations. The old man often points out how "we yakuza were just gamblers then; we didn't do anything but gamble. No real yakuza sold drugs, loansharked, or extorted money. In fact, they took great pains to get along with their shopkeeper neighbors, and often made "gentlemen's agreements" with other organization--and honored those agreements at great risk or even great detriment to themselves. They were also a "mutual support" organization in which gambling joints that were bringing in a lot of money put people on the payroll from places that were hurting.

All in all, this is a fascinating look at a way of life that is completely different from what we know today and which doesn't exist anymore--even in the exact locations where the old man's stories took place.

Incidentally, Bob Dylan apparently borrowed lines from this book in a song from his 2001 album, "Love and Theft." For details, just do a web search for "Confessions of a Yakuza" and "Bob Dylan".

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--Mellow Monk.

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