I’ve always had a soft spot for noir.
Men are men, dames are dames, bartenders sling murky off-brand whiskey when they deign to look up from the LA Times crossword where they’ve been stuck on 46 across all day, the corrupt win, and with any luck the good scrape by to see another day, sometimes.
This genre’s icons bear hard names like Chandler, Hammett, Leonard. The form dictates roughing-ups, sticking your nose where it doesn’t belong, lonely codas of reflection and loss, and sticking it to Mr. Big, when you can, and the general chill that comes from the inescapable realization that it’s still all law of the jungle out there and that sometimes when you win, you lose. In short, one line from one of the greatest noirs ever covers it all:
“Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”
If Jake Gittes could feel like he was in Chinatown even as he was in LA, what happens if you take a Jewish kid from the midwest with a crusading heart, plunk him down in Tokyo’s seediest, yakuza-hosting districts as the Yomiuri’s newspaper’s vice beat reporter? The book Tokyo Vice tells that tale. Here’s the kicker, it’s all true1.
The story is tri-partite. First our narrator Jake comes to Japan and against all odds winds up getting accepted to write for the Yomiuri Shinbun, something like the New York Times. It narrates a cub reporter’s early and naive steps. Jake gives us a picture of the politics of the newspaper and the politics of the police department. If the structure that is overt and explained is complicated and designed to protect the honor of all involved, the secret structures that form how the work really gets done is even more interesting.
In the second act Jake describes his continued growth of a network of whores, pimps, yakuza, and cops. The stories generally fall into the form of where a cultural precept is discussed and stories from the beat clarify the issue or the story about the pursuit of a meaty topic is given. In the first class we have the explanation of a woman’s place at the paper (“Evening Flowers”) or a case about a serial killer (“Whatever Happened to Lucie Blackman”). These two parts set up the conflict that opens and closes the book: Jake getting on Yamaguchi-gumi gang leader Tadasama Goto’s hit list and calling in all the favors and players we’ve come to know through the first two acts.
Amazingly enough, the thing that ties all those pieces together is honor. The cops' honor to the favors paid, the yakuza soldiers loyalty to each other, and the businesslike honor of the criminal empire known as yakuza (“Goldman Sachs with guns,” Jake quips). The stories are independent vignettes that, in sum paint a confusing picture of the turmoil around doing what’s right. Doing right by some sacrifices other good people, to win you have to be willing to lose it all, left and right.
If “Chinatown” could make that world complex with only one financial scheme and relatively few power gangsters, Tokyo, with its density and wealth, escalates that by a whole order of magnitude.
Jake gets his larynx squeezed by silent, nine-fingered enforcers. Jake plies secrets out of cops and criminals in hostess bars in Roppongi with sake and blackmail. He takes lonely walks into the suburbs to visit a cop mentor and he gets very, very little sleep.
I really enjoyed the story, for all its grit. You can easily imagine the wrinkled, dirty suit at the end of the day. You can imagine the reek of cigarettes and perfume and you can understand the paranoia of knowing that one of the most powerful gangland leaders has dozens of punks who know they can make a big splash by doing the boss a favor and getting rid of you.
I really enjoyed the descriptions of the inter-factional yakuza system of obligations. It’s amazing to consider that there’s a board of directors and that rival sub-factions have no compunction about getting into the board’s good graces by shutting down non-performing franchisees. It’s a very, very different way of looking at organized crime.
For me the payoff for the two gritty opening parts is the mournful, elegaic third act. Good friends die, evil prospers, a true innocent is destroyed with Jake as the one who brings it about, and Jake scores a last, final, desperate victory. He manages to put a scratch in the paint of the organized crime juggernaut that is the yakuza’s enterprise. This sadness is so critical to noir, where the hero re-connects to human emotion in the quiet spaces. For this reason I think the part’s title “Dusk” is perfect.
I think that this sadness aspect was caught in this great hard-boiled text from “Evening Flowers:”
Setsunai is usually translated as ‘sad,’ but it is better described as a feeling of sadness and loneliness so powerful that it feels as if your chest is constricted, as if you can’t breathe; a sadness that is physical and tangible. There is another word, too – yarusenai, which is grief or loneliness so strong that you can’t get rid of it, you can’t clear it away.
There are some things like that. You get older and you forget about them, but every time you rememeber, you feel that yanusenai. It never goes away; it just gets tucked away and forgotten for a while.
It’s that one email you never replied to and will never open. It’s the bad advice you gave and the phone call you should have made and everything that came out of it. It’s thinking about the friends you suspect you might have been able to save.
The language is terse and crisp, like McCarthy or Hemingway, the economy and unadorned nature of the language prompts a clarity and a nakedness that helps advance the story.
It’s a good read, and a lot of fun.
Updated: April 2 evening for typographical errors.
- We don’t actually know how much is “true.” Jake may well have bent the story to protect the innocent, to hide secrets, etc. This text assumes the truth is told.