Cloaked in mystery and perhaps a certain degree of myth, the yakuza constitute one of the hardest subculture groups in Japan to infiltrate. But when Belgian photographer Anton Kusters and his brother, Malik, saw a gangster walk by as they were drinking at a bar in Tokyo's entertainment district of Kabukicho, they knew they wanted to know more.
"We were intrigued by his clothing style and polite manners," Anton said, "And it was then that we got the idea to do a photographic project following a yakuza family long term."
That might sound like an ambitious and even romantic project, but what the Kusters brothers achieved is a more realistic photographic portrayal of the yakuza than many have seen before. And it took persistence and a high degree of tact.
They were introduced to a middle man, Souichirou, by the Kabukicho bar owner, Taka, and from there it took 10 months of careful negotiation to persuade the yakuza family that controls Kabukicho to let the brothers document their lives.
For two years Anton, who is also the creative director of the online photography magazine www.burnmagazine.org, and Malik were given unprecedented access to the family.
Through photography, film and writing, Anton found himself unearthing not only the controversial relationship the yakuza have with modern Japanese society, but also the personal inner struggle of individual members as they find themselves attempting to reconcile their cultural background with societal norms.
His resulting photography book, "ODO YAKUZA TOKYO," was published independently in June and its limited 500-copy run sold out in just 34 days. The images are dark, moody and often melancholic, yet fascinating and beautiful in tone and dramatic documentary style. Depicting the life and city of the clan members, the photos also reveal a complexity and humanity to a subculture that is typically only remembered for its history of organized crime.
As Anton explains himself, he discovered that the yakuza's role in society today is not "a simple black versus white relationship, but most definitely one with many shades of grey."
When you approached the yakuza and told them you wanted to make a book, how did they react?
When I showed them images I'd done before I started the project, for some reason — and I don't know what exactly it was — they thought I expressed some kind of Japanese way of taking photographs. It was (something to do with) what is in my images and what is not in them, and the feelings they evoke. That was a lucky break for me. Maybe it is the calmness in the images.
Aside from liking your photography, why did they agree to the project?
The family wanted to chronicle themselves in a way that would go beyond snapshots, and this project succeeds in that way. They can show the work to other yakuza families and say, 'Look at what we got,' and it could help their relations with those families.
Also, the fact that our contact person was connected in the art world, they knew and understood that it was a documentary art project and not a journalistic project.
Did you have to take special precautions to shoot this subject matter?
There were two main things. First, learning how to be polite in a Japanese way. Second, to get permission to do the project, we had to show a real intention of following through and actually completing it. They would have been upset if we didn't make a book after we had said we would.
How did you go about taking photos; what was the relationship with your the subjects like?
It was always "picture by appointment" — I couldn't just walk in and take photos, because basically I didn't know where they were. They were everywhere and nowhere at the same time. We would get a schedule of the yakuza's movement — not on paper of course — but everything was negotiated, mainly for our safety.
Once I met them, though, everything was completely unposed — except for one picture — it was 100 percent a documentary about what was happening. I had to learn a lot about Japanese manners, but I'm a Westerner, so in their eyes, I had no sensibility whatsoever when it came to politeness. I just had to do my best. It's funny, but that also became a strength because I could make mistakes and it was OK because I am "only a gaijin (foreigner)."
Before you started, did you have many preconceptions about the yakuza?
I thought it would be like in the movies. Basically, most people think they are a bunch of crazy tattooed gangsters running around the streets with swords killing each other every five minutes. But that image comes from what we see in the American pseudo-Yakuza movies. It does not show the Japanese perspective.
Of course, my preconceptions were quickly turned around to the understanding that they are more subtle than action based. Yakuza is a way of life, it is not just about being a gangster. They actually think about who they are, and their position in society.
Everything gets polarized in the movies and people start to think the wildest things. The yakuza seriously consider that, and they think about what is good or bad, what they should do and what not to do. Of course I am talking about the bosses, who I followed. I don't know what the young lads and the bōsōzoku (young biker gangs) are thinking, I guess they are more like teenagers who are often rebellious towards authority.
Photographically, what was the most powerful situation that you encountered during this project?
The funeral, which was mind-blowing. I got a phone call that Miyamoto-san, a high ranking boss of the clan, had a stroke and was dying, and I flew over to pay him my last respects. The family appreciated that gesture, and they allowed me to photograph the funeral.
It was incredible not only because it was a traditional Japanese funeral — the body was cremated in a special manner, there were flowers filling the coffin and other cultural specifics — but on top of that, it was a yakuza funeral, so there were 250 or perhaps even more standing in line to be greeted. Every time someone came to pay their respects, they would all bow. It was impressive to watch, and at the same time, it was a very touching moment.
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