The Mike Toole Show Damn Yankiis
by Michael Toole,
I was totally supposed to go to Anime Japan this week, but a scheduling conflict kept me at home, so I've had to content myself with Bamboo's exhaustive reporting. Hey, these things happen. I'd like to hit the event next year, though. I want to make that trip to Tokyo Big Sight. I want to see the big series and studio booths, to look at the live stage events featuring favorite singers and seiyuu, to experience something fun and new. Most of all, after taking in the crowds and excitement, I want to make my way over to Yoyogi Park in Harajuku, to check out the bad-ass greasers that dance there. (A twitter buddy got my back on that, too!)
But why do I want to see these peculiar dancing rockabilly dudes, anyway? For one, they're something of a longtime fixture; I first heard of them when humorist Dave Barry described them in his 1993 book Dave Barry Does Japan. Their schtick is an odd one – wearing nominally-matching leather jackets, tight jeans, and towering pompadours, these raconteurs dance and pose to the tune of rock n’ roll songs played back on a boombox. But secondly, these dudes are more than just a conventional tourist attraction—the pompadours and long jackets call back to decades of yankii fashion.
You've seen the yankii style, which takes its name from the yankee pop culture that U.S. servicemen brought over after World War II. Boys wear their hair in outrageous, gravity-defying perms and pompadours, with school uniforms modified to look larger than life. True heroes of delinquency will even sport sarashi bandage wraps under the school jacket, for extra tough-guy-ness. Girls favor longer skirts and similar uniform modifications, though their hair is worn long and sometimes spiked or colored. Both boys and girls wear tokkofuku, the long school coats frequently adorned with elaborate embroidery of their favorite slogans. Yankii style is useful imagery in anime and manga, because it's shorthand for “delinquent.” If you're one, there's a good chance that you're also the other.
The thing is, while yankii fashion isn't too hard to find, the yankii lifestyle, where kids drop out of school to join up with bosozoku biker gangs and perhaps later the yakuza, is dying out. In 1976, Mitsuo Yamaguchi directed a film called God Speed You! Black Emperor, chronicling the exploits of a young bosozoku kid and his gang, the Black Emperors. It's an arresting piece of stream of consciousness filmmaking, with disaffected kids explaining that they've abandoned the traditional Japanese school and career track because they can't see a future for themselves in it. Back then, there were tens of thousands of youths riding around on their crazy-ass customized motorbikes in the small hours, but a 2010 magazine survey reported fewer than 8,000 bosozoku left in all of Japan. This is fascinating to me, because yankii and bosozoku anime used to be a pretty major category.
Our man Justin's written about Bite Me! Chameleon in these pages, and I myself touched on a series called Shonan Bakusozoku a mere… four years ago? Damn, time flies. That was part of a column called “The Least Essential Anime,” which, in retrospect, was a bit unkind to Shonan Bakusozoku. Make no mistake, it amounted to a sad little fart of a VHS release in the US, but in Japan, “ShoBaku” was a major phenomenon.
See that? That purple nightmare is Yosuke Eguchi, star of Shonan Bakusozoku. The popular original manga was adapted as a live-action film, you see—the OVAs that we all barely remember were a tie-in product for the movie. Yosuke's the leader of the Shonan Bomber Bikers, and the best damned embroiderer in all of Kanagawa. That's one thing that sets Shonan Bakusozoku apart right away – it very cutely and earnestly attacks a typical gender role, with the tough, cool, rebellious guy also being really into sewing. It's played as a joke in the OVA's early scenes, but it isn't really—Eguchi takes his needlework seriously, and part of why he has so much respect as a biker punk is the fact that gang leaders from all over the prefecture bring their jackets to him, eager for his handiwork to bring their slogans and mottos to life on the cloth. Beyond that, the series functions on the running gimmick of defeating an adversary and making them an ally. That's how Yosuke's acquires his entire gang, and how he makes allies of the neighborhood rivals, the Yokosuka Hustle Jets.
Here's something interesting that crops up in a lot of these delinquent stories—it's cool to rebel against your jerky parents and society's expectations, but you have to do it properly. For all of their fierce originality in terms of fashion and bike customization, these characters still wear a uniform of sorts, and there's a strict hierarchy of street toughs that report to stronger street toughs that report to a charismatic neighborhood hero. When guys like Eguchi beat everyone up and upend that social order, it's only because they're just that cool and obviously deserve to be in charge. So, if you're the hero of a bosozoku manga, you're a rebel, but you still have to fight with guts and honor, stick up for girls, and do all of that cherished stuff. And when the line is crossed—when the cops go too far in hassling the local bikers, or a gang leader commits a serious crime that threatens the rep of all bosozoku, rivalries are cast aside and the streets are lit up with a cacophony of clanging, honking mopeds, dirtbikes, racing motorcycles, and cars. On two wheels or four, justice is loud and swift in the yankii anime world!
Did you know that GTO, good old Great Teacher Onizuka, was sort of a yankii anime? If you paid attention to the chit-chat between title character Eikichi Onizuka and his buddy, motorcycle mechanic Ryuji Danma, you might've noticed them talking about their exploits as high school street brawlers. That isn't just establishing a cool background story—the characters were originally the stars of Tohru Fujisawa's Shonan Junai Gumi, a 1990s Weekly Shonen mainstay about motorcycle toughs who race up and down Shonan Beach in Kanagawa Prefecture. Shonan Junai Gumi wasn't a massive hit, but it persisted for no less than 30 volumes and spawned a 5-episode OVA adaptation. I find the series’ gimmickry amusing—mischievous high-schoolers Ryuji and Eikichi seem like they're just out for a good time, but cross them, and then out comes the hair mousse, transforming them into the evil-eyed, pompadoured Oni-Baku gang! No seriously, their stock “shit's getting real” panel involves styling mousse.
But stick with Shonan Junai Gumi, and you'll start to see why it hung around for so long. It only really starts off as a breezy delinquent manga. As its story develops, we learn about Eikichi and Ryuji's old friendships and gangs, their meeting new friends, and their (largely hapless) pursuit of romance. The series starts to strike a balance between its comedy, action, and drama in later volumes, as the characters notice they're growing up and can't really be bosozoku forever. After GTO rose to popularity, Tokyopop had a go at releasing the manga, but folded before it could be finished. Vertical picked Shonan Junai Gumi up and got the remainder of the story released, so some careful shopping will get you the entire series, but sadly, it never did that well. The anime version is decent enough, though Onizuka sounds weirdly old, sporting a different actor than GTO's Wataru Takagi.
GTO's a real delight, a series that's both compulsively readable in manga form and watchable as anime. (There's live-action stuff, too. Actually, there are live action versions of an awful lot of delinquent tough-guy anime. I guess they're cheap to film?) After realizing he can't just stay a punk forever, Eikichi Onizuka dedicates himself to becoming not just a mediocre educator, but the greatest teacher in all of Japan! See, it's funny, because he's a bum who limped through a fourth-rate junior college to get his teaching certificate. But in the classroom, things take an unexpected turn; with his upbringing making him something of an outsider in Japan's social hierarchy, it turns out that Onizuka's less likely to fall prey to both petty bureaucracy from his superiors and psychological needling from his students. But despite being a kind and lively role model for the class, Onizuka's still a delinquent at heart, all too easily distracted by cute girls, video games, bikes, and booze.
In the throes of the early-2000s manga boom, Tokyopop took GTO creator Tohru Fujisawa to some US events, and I recall him discussing the idea of making a GTO chapter where Onizuka teaches in America, and tries to get together with tough kids at one of our schools. I found this sentiment intriguing, because one of the driving elements of GTO's story is the way Onizuka's casual style and brutal honesty makes it easier for him to connect to his troubled students. At his Japanese schools, this causes problems with the stodgy school administration, who want him to straighten out and stick to the school curriculum. But in America, that approach to teaching might well be highly prized, don't you think?
Despite its lower popularity (France seemed to have the best approach to marketing the older series, simply dubbing it Young GTO), I'm glad that Shonan Junai Gumi is out there, because it really helps frame why GTO is such an important series. Taken together, the two stories make up a compelling complete work—one that shows the lives of punk kids, heroes but not idols, that are able to eventually grow up and have fulfilling lives. One of the things that made God Speed You! Black Emperor so compelling is the real sense of anger and hopelessness of its subjects. You see that anger in some delinquent anime as well, but GTO makes for a solid counterpoint. No wonder its anime version is still in print.
There's one thing I really like about early-90s yankii OVA Bad Boys, and it's not that it shares a title with those fabulous Michael Bay films. I appreciate that it doesn't take place in Tokyo, but instead Hiroshima. Too damn many of these things take place in Tokyo, and even though it's usually out in the suburbs in Shonan or Yokohama, that still often seems a little too close to the big city. Part of what made bosozoku such a phenomenon in the 70s and 80s is the fact that the culture came out of poor and working-class families far from the big cities, where the kids had nothing to do, scant career prospects, and lots of big wide roads to race up and down on. Bad Boys takes us down south and makes sure we know it's Hiroshima by opening with a shot of the war memorial. Then a bunch of pompadoured bikers run off a couple of gawking salarymen, because they can't handle themselves, man.
Turns out the whole scene is on a videotape being watched by a good little rich kid named Tsukasa. He's studying for his entrance exams to try and satisfy his distant family, but what he really dreams about is racin’, fightin’, and chasin’ girls in pursuit of the goal of making his gang the baddest motherfuckers in all of Hiroshima prefecture. He rolls up, crisp and clean, to the reigning kings, the Night Angels (or, as their jackets say, the “Nights Angel”) and has his ass kicked. Undaunted, he approaches a pompadoured tough named Eiji. Eiji isn't impressed with Tsukasa's polite inquiries about joining a gang, but he does notice that the kid has money, and decides to take advantage of that. But eventually, it's time to throw down with the Night Angels, and that's when the story's secret is revealed: this Tsukasa kid might be from a posh family, but he's got a fierce temper and fists to match!
You're waiting expectantly for the other half of the twist, right? Tsukasa's a savage fighter, but he has a heart of gold and really makes everyone else's life better, maybe? Nope, that doesn't really happen right away, and that's what sets Bad Boys apart. Here's a story about tough kids getting into trouble that nakedly glorifies violence in a way that isn't present in most of the yankii anime I've seen. The series repeatedly and cynically uses the “girlfriend is about to get molested, time to BUST IN and SAVE HER!” trick, and while the fights stop short of murder, the characters just beat each other to a pulp in these OVAs. It's kind of unsettling.
There is one thing I dig about Bad Boys, though, aside from the above hilarious faces: it has a girl yankii is a major character. See, Tsukasa's love interest Kumi (Megumi Hayashibara, in an early starring role) is kind of a goody two-shoes, but her classmate Erika is a total sukeban, the one girl delinquent every bit as scary as her boyfriend, the leader of the Night Angels. (Once she learns that he's been butting heads with Tsukasa, she puts him in his place pretty quick.) As Tsukasa and his new buddies gain allies and enemies, he finds himself heading up a formidable new gang—the Paradise Butterflies!
Yep, that's a hell of a name. Like so many other yankii anime and manga, Bad Boys also got a live-action version, a 2011 movie adaptation that seems to toss out much of the yankii stylings and focus on the “brawling delinquents” part. There's even a live-action TV spinoff. Stuff like this is interesting to me, because like I've pointed out, delinquent stories seem to have gone out of fashion quite some time ago, but they're still being cooked up and adapted.
All of the above shows actually came out on DVD, but an awful lot of yankii and bosozoku anime hasn't, making it a pain in the ass to track down. The movie above is called Flag!, and it's obscure enough that I couldn't even find it in the ANNCyclopedia. Satoshi Dezaki directed it, so I figure it's got to be at least as good as Mad Bull 34, right? Other tough-guy cartoons with titles like Rokudenashi Blues, Bats and Terry, Pelican Road Club Culture, and Otoko Katayama Gumi, have been similarly tough for me to track down. There are VHS tapes on Yahoo Auctions Japan, at least.
I'll close this yankii roundup by pointing at a recent local interest story that went down in Okayama City. Turns out that the junior high kids there have a tradition – every year at graduation, a whole bunch of them dress up like yankii, complete with tokkofuku and brightly-colored hair, and hang out by the Momotaro fountain in the middle of town. There's undoubtedly some monkey business happening at these events – after all, the whole “yankii as recruitment channel for yakuza” thing is still kind of a problem. But for the most part, it's lighthearted fun; throngs of police officers arrive to be met with a crowd of 15-year-olds wearing funny clothes and making faces at them. Neighborhood complaints amount to gripes about foul language, and last year they actually had to arrest a girl for starting a fistfight. That was about it.
What we see here is the whole romanticized bosozoku lifestyle passing into myth. That's not too surprising—after all, pursuing the lifestyle almost invariably involves dropping out of school and causing undue problems for later work and life development. But it's intriguing to me because there's no analogue to these gangs in western culture. Bosozoku aren't really anything like western biker culture; their movement is lousy with its own symbols and slang. It's pretty unique, and it's gradually disappearing, turning into a period fashion movement just like the greasers and teddy boys and the mods of the west did.
What do you think of yankii anime and bosozoku adventure stories? Do you think the whole thing is corny and dumb? Or do you think that these rebellious biker kids have created a certain mystique, their own kind of cool? I have a feeling that, while some aspects of the culture will fade away, as long as it's loud and there are wheels, Japan's gonna have some bosozoku anime, and real-life bosozoku to watch it. I hope they all ride hard and live long.
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