The Art of Persuasion: `Minbo’ Proves Words are Mightier Than the Sword

MINBO_

By Jae-Ha Kim
Chicago Sun-Times
February 3, 1995

4 stars

Mahiru Inoue  (Nobuko Miyamoto)
Gen. Mgr. Kobayashi  (Akira Takarada)
Yuki Suzuki  (Yasuo Daichi)
Taro Wakasugi  (Takehiro Murata)

Directed and written by Juzo Itami.
Running time: 123 minutes. In Japanese with English subtitles.
No MPAA rating (some nudity and violence). Opening today at the Music Box.

The yakuza – the Japanese equivalent of the Mafia – has achieved notoriety of romantic proportions in films such as “Black Rain” and “The Yakuza.”  But in his brilliantly clever “Minbo – Or The Gentle Art of Japanese Extortion,” director-writer Juzu Itami presents the group as nothing more than a bunch of thugs who take pride in  chopping off bits of each other’s pinkies and think nothing of hiding cockroaches in food to blackmail restaurants for hush money.

Minbo is the abbreviated legal jargon for minji kainyu boryoku, a term that encompasses how yakuza extort money without actually breaking any laws.  Minbo also is a discreet form of intimidation, but there’s nothing subtle about the yakuza’s swaggering threats and orders.

So when a Tokyo hotel finds itself out of contention to host an international summit because it’s crawling with yakuza, the general manager hires Mahiru Inoue to weed out the criminal element. Inoue (Nobuko Miyamoto) is no bruising hulk, but rather a smart, vivacious female attorney whose speciality is disposing of the yakuza through her command of the law and, more importantly, her understanding of the criminal mind.

You see Inoue’s cunning in the film’s opening sequence when, without ever losing her dignity or her smile, she convinces the yakuza they actually want to leave the swimming pool. The scene’s fast-paced dialogue (on subtitles) is priceless.

Inoue is given two inexperienced underlings to help her deal with the yakuza:  Yuki Suzuki (Yasuo Daichi), a meek hotel accountant whose greatest joy is hearing what his mother has prepared for dinner, and Taro Wakasugi (Takehiro Murata), a nervous, young bellhop. At first too frightened to do anything more than bribe the yakuza with tens of thousands of dollars, they timidly learn from Inoue, who teaches them the tricks of her trade.

The yakuza primarily uses intimidation, rather any actual physical violence to extort money, she says.  So don’t show them you’re afraid. She shows them how in a scene where a yakuza don tries to extort $500,000 from the hotel.  At the end of the negotiations, the gang is furious and frustrated, but not violent.

“The yakuza taught you to be skilled negotiators,” the head of the hotel beams at his team.  Actually, it was Inoue all along.

Itami couldn’t have selected a better actress than Nobuko Miyamoto to play the role of Inoue. Confident without being cocky, Miyamoto is such a scene stealer that her performance almost makes you forget that, save for a handful of window-dressing bar hostesses, she is virtually the only woman in the film.

But in this case, quality more than makes up for quantity.

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