Netflix movie The Outsider has been widely criticised for a variety of reasons. The film centers on Nick Lowell (Jared Leto), an American former prisoner of war who becomes a member of a Yakuza clan in 1950s Osaka.
The Guardian dismissed the film as having “a fetishistic relationship to Japanese elements that could have only come from someone who sees them as exotic, rather than intuitively understanding their place in society.”
I was intrigued to see it for myself, having interviewed at least 30 members of a Yakuza family during two intense weeks in 2015 when I was researching the meaning of symbols in their tattoos. From my observations, there are a number of problems with the way the Yakuza is represented in the film.
Straight away, the strangest thing is that a foreigner – a gaijin – gets to become a member of a Yakuza family. Not only that, but Lowell quickly rises to become a member with key responsibilities – at one point he becomes the main boss’s bodyguard. This is pretty unlikely – certainly at the speed with which our hero achieves this distinction in the film.
Yakuza organizations tend to have a clear structure with several bosses on many different levels. In this case Lowell performs his initiation rite (sakazuki) with the main boss of the family. In reality it might take years for a new member to get such a privilege – a new member might even work under several bosses before he gets to perform the initiation rite. And even then it’s unlikely he’d be initiated by the main boss of the organization.
Finger cutting, tattoos and suits
It is a typical gangster movie, but the context does not feel unique to Japan. It seems that Yakuza symbols are used to enhance the feeling that the main character is simply entering another world.
Before being accepted into the Yakuza family, Lowell performs the traditional finger-cutting ritual known as yubitsume. In this ritual the Yakuza member cuts off a part of his finger and hands it over to the boss – in Lowell’s case two of his fingertips, which he presents to the boss. But the scene lacks context and explanation – in the film the boss sends Lowell’s and another member’s fingers to a rival boss.
In real life, I know of one instance where a Yakuza boss cut off his own finger and sent it to a rival boss to apologize for one of his clan’s behavior. In the film we appear to get a combination of popular scenarios depicting this ritual, and it really doesn’t ring true.
Lowell also gets a traditional Japanese tattoo. He is tattooed with a koi carp – a famous symbol for Japanese gangsters. Yakuza members I have talked with say the koi fish represents a wish to climb the hierarchy of their organizations, which Lowell certainly does. But again, there is very little context for this tattoo. In fact, Yakuza tend not to refer to them as tattoos, but irezumi – which have a deeper spiritual meaning than is evident in the film.
If you are following the traditional ways, the irezumi master would interview you too see that your irezumi fits your personality best. It’s a significant physical and spiritual commitment – a traditional irezumi might take more than 200 hours to complete and the content of the tattoo could be very personal. Again this commitment doesn’t come across in the film.
These Yakuza are also very smartly dressed – they all seem to prefer to wear suits – and Lowell is accordingly dressed in a suit when he is initiated into the Yakuza family. But that’s not really the case – they tend to wear what they like. It feels a little like the suits are there to give the film a bit of a old-fashioned mobster feel, which doesn’t really work.
Mobster as modern-day Samurai
What does ring true is the overall picture of the Yakuza as living to a certain code, or nobility. In the early part of the movie, Lowell is beaten up in jail by prison guards for saving a Yakuza member’s life. The Yakuza member then swears an oath that he will get his members to pick Lowell up from prison when he gets out, which they do.
To explain this perception of the noble gangster you have to delve into the Yakuza’s long history. Exactly how Yakuza organizations came into existence is open to debate – but there is a recurring image in both popular culture and academia of the Yakuza as descended from the Samurai, protecting the poor against the evil shoguns. But the jury is out – and in fact in more recent times Yakuza organizations have worked with the police.
When US president Dwight D Eisenhower scheduled a visit to Japan in 1960, they were asked to help protect him from street demonstrations. They have also been used by company bosses to intimidate labor unions.
But the Yakuza’s murky origins are far more likely to be mixed up with the criminal underworld and illegal gambling and street peddling in the 1800s.
Having said that, in their own worldview, Yakuza members do not see themselves as bad guys. They frequently call themselves ninkyo dantai (honorable organizations) which follow the Samurai code, the bushido, a set of rules and moral values. The Outsider leans heavily on these mythological narratives – at one point showing Yakuza members fighting with Samurai swords.
So the critics are right in the main. The Outsider is filled with romantic cliches and decontextualized symbols. But it does get one thing right – being a Yakuza is likely to mean a life of fragile, shifting alliances with the risk of a fast and painful death.