I don’t review books that often, especially not recently. While I read my share, they usually end up as side discussions with friends or a quick comment on Facebook. One topic that has always fascinated me is the Yakuza. I’ve read a variety of books on the subject over the years, including Confessions of a Yakuza: A Life in Japan’s Underworld, Tokyo Underworld: The Fast Times and Hard Life of an American Gangster in Japan, Yakuza Diary: Doing Time in the Japanese Underworld, and Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan among others. One thing these books don’t come with is pictures. No surprise there, while the Yakuza is hardly a secret, their circles are of course closed.
A couple years ago I saw a post about a new coffee table photography book coming out, depicting the Yakuza. Reading the photographer/author description made it sound incredible:
YAKUZA is a personal visual account of the life inside an inaccessible subculture: a traditional Japanese crime family that controls the streets of Kabukicho, in the heart of Tokyo, Japan.
Through 10 months of negotiations with the Shinseikai, my brother Malik and I became one of the only westerners ever to be granted this kind of access to the closed world of Japanese organized crime.
With a mix of photography, film, writing and graphic design, I try to share not only their complex relationship to Japanese society, but also to show the personal struggle of being forced to live in two different worlds at the same time; worlds that often have conflicting morals and values. It turns out not to be a simple ‘black’ versus ‘white’ relationship, but most definitely one with many, many, many shades of grey.
“A visual account” – “10 months of negotiations to be able to take the pictures” – “One of the only westerners to be granted this access” .. How could that be bad?! Of course I purchased the book, for something close to $50. I figure a unique look into Yakuza life was well worth that price. Disclaimer: I appreciate artistic photographs. That includes questionable focus, perspective shots, and more. I get that each picture has more meaning to the photographer, and that it doesn’t always translate. Five minutes leading up to the picture may carry a world of context lost to the subsequent viewer, but captured entirely in the eyes of the shooter.
However, when I finally received the book and flipped through it, I was disappointed. 197 pages of pictures (several being one picture across two pages), but almost no feeling that Kusters had more than casual access to the family he was with. Below is a list of my description of the pictures in the first half of the book. To emphasize the lack of content, I will italicize where a picture is blurry, and underline where there is any hint that the Yakuza are involved.
16: Blank (small text describing next page)
17: Full page picture of calligraphy “jump”
18-19: Distant shot of city/neighborhood
20-21: Random Tokyo block
22-23: Blurry shot of rain on window
24-25: Slightly blurry picture of 3 men in suits
26-27: Paper lantern
28-29: Cabinet in abandoned? building
30-31: Close-up through window of man driving car
32: Blank (small text describing next page)
33: Full page picture of calligraphy “learn”
34: Leather jacket clad shoulder/back of a man
35: Back of man in suit at security-laden door
36: Picture of security monitor, with leather jacket clad man on it
37: Japanese writing on wood wall
38-39: Intricate sealed letter in offered hand
40-41: Three men in restaurant, looking serious
42-43: Drinks and cigarette pack on restaurant table
44-45: Three men in suits waiting outside building (click for actual picture)
46-47: Slightly blurry picture of ~ 8 men walking down street, odd angle doesn’t show much of them
48: Blank (small text describing next page)
49: Full page picture of calligraphy “boss”
50-51: Slightly blurry picture of random highway (click for actual picture)
52-53: Close-up of chest and face of man in suit, sitting in car (click for actual picture)
54-55: Picture of highway signs
56-57: Nice park, tiny silhouette of man
58-59: Outdoor shot, slightly blurry man in lower corner on phone
60-61: Paper with Japanese writing and picture of a Federal Bureau of Prisons Inmate ID of Yoshimura Mitsuo
62-63: Random city block, group of men walking away
64: Blank (small text describing next page)
65: Full page picture of calligraphy “belong”
66-67: One blurry man, one more clear man, waiting by car
68-69: Close-up of heavily tattooed hands, one pinkie missing
70-71: Several paper lanterns
72-73: Blurry shot of three figures in a car
74-75: Blurry shot of landscape, perhaps out of moving car
76-77: Three cars outside of a residence?
78-79: Eight men seated around table
80: Blank (small text describing next page)
81: Full page picture of calligraphy “training”
82-83: Two men sparring in Karate, several sitting on floor around them
84-85: Four silhouettes sitting under beach umbrellas
86-87: Two men on beach swinging baseball bats
88-89: Man sitting on floor of residence (no ink on arms or visible chest)
90-91: Close-up of man practicing knife fighting
92-93: Four men drinking
94-95: Blurry shot of man walking into building at night
96: Blank (small text describing next page)
97: Full page picture of calligraphy “the way of the cherry blossom”
98-99: Lace window coverings
100-101: Blurry shot of building in distance
102-103: Close-up of two men, possibly in gym locker room
104-105: Very blurry shot of 3 men bathing, post gym?
106-107: Picture of dozens of men sitting on beach facing water (click for actual picture)
108-109: Blurry shot outside back of train window
110-111: Man with raised shirt, showing 1 tattoo on chest
In the first half of the book, there are only 44 total pictures. Of those, 12 are blurry and only 14 (some of them blurry) could be argued to be Yakuza-related pictures. That is not what was advertised by any means, and the rest of the book does not take a sudden turn for the better. In short, steer clear of this book.