I am gathered here today to pay tribute to Bunta Sugawara whose death marks the end of the modern movie yakuza, the last shot of the machine gun dragons, and the final police sweep of the Showa era...
Discovering Bunta’s 1970s output on dozens of VHS tapes at SF’s Japan Town (egged on by Chris D.’s pioneering reviews in Asian Trash Cinema magazine) pretty much changed my life. Gendai Yakuza – Hitokiri Yota (AKA Street Mobster) in particular wound up a primal scene, and without it, I might never have wandered into the deep end of Japanese pop culture beyond the boundaries of anime and kaiju flicks.
Back then, it was impossible to find a subtitled copy of any of the Kinji Fukasaku / Sugawara films, but Bunta’s hellfire persona was more than enough to go on. There was THAT FACE, twisting and contorting with overclocked emotion. Then there was THAT VOICE, which could go from a deep menacing rumble to something I can only equate with the sound of an entire room filled with beer bottles breaking and ramen bowls shattering (usually over someone’s head). I needed to write about it. I wound up writing books about it...
Looking back, I think I was seeing something of my own father when I saw Bunta and many of the yakuza movie tough guys mixing it up. While he wasn’t an abusive person by nature, explosive rage mixed with remote coolness was something I did experience up close on several occasions. I think I was trying to understand what masculine violence was and where it came from. I wound up looking for answers in post-war Japan; both in real history and in the exploitation “true document” films in which Bunta and directors like Kinji Fukasaku relived their own past traumas in.
Bunta’s death arrives mere weeks after the loss of fellow icon Takakura Ken (that's both of them destroying the world in the picture above). Together, they were the alpha and omega, the ninkyo and the jitsuroku, of Japan’s movie tough guys. Ken was stoic, suffering, and deeply connected to the crisis of Modernization during the Meiji and Taisho era. Bunta was something more primal: a libidinal Frankenstein monster that 20th century Japan created by proxy, but could not tame with law and order. An outsider outlaw no matter what gang he might belong to.
That both Bunta and Ken are gone means we are on our own now -- death claims victory in yet another cynical freeze frame ending – but at least we will forever have role models, real and imaginary, for how battles without honor or humanity can be fought.
So let's start everything over right here, right now.... what the fuck are you staring at?