Japan's mobsters get a big-screen reality check with policeman's film

As a policeman who had spent years tangling with Yakuza gangsters in Japan's far south, Masataka Yabu had reached his limit.

After years of watching rose-tinted movies and dramas glorifying mobsters as anti-heroes at war with decaying modern values, the head of Kita-Kyushu's organised crime unit decided to take drastic action - he made his own film.

The Unforgiveables is due for release this month and real police officers play leading roles. With shaved heads and mirror shades, the cops look like their real-life nemeses. "They didn't need much make-up," Mr Yabu, 50, says while laughing.

"Youngsters think the Yakuza are cool because they have this false image. After they join up they find the reality is a lot different, but by then it's too late.

"I wanted to show ... that real gangsters are bad guys who couldn't care less about society." Based on an actual incident, the film follows a young mobster who is beaten and tortured after being accused by his boss of stealing, and who is forced to extort money from his ailing father to pay the debt. The oyabun, or boss, is played by Mr Yabu's colleague, inspector Takanobu Kurata.

The Yakuza are the subject of an entire genre of films in Japan, as important to popular culture here as westerns and gangster dramas are in the US.

Many are idealised portrayals of warriors who uphold traditional values at the margins of a corrupt, soulless society.

The mobsters call themselves ninkyo-dan, or chivalrous groups, a label that sets Mr Yabu's teeth on edge. "Give me a break," he says. "They're only interested in one thing: how much money they can squeeze out of others. What's chivalrous about that?"

In Tokyo, the mob has traditionally avoided hurting innocents, but they are less restrained in the south. "They extort from everybody: real estate agents, local politicians and business people," says Mr Yabu. In one recent incident, gangsters from Kita-Kyushu's biggest gang, the Kudo-kai, tossed a grenade into a club that had barred them, injuring a dozen people.

The Kudo-kai is an affiliate of the Yamaguchi-gumi, Japan's most powerful Yakuza organisation, which boasts a membership in excess of 30,000. A crackdown since the early Nineties has reduced smaller groups, but Yamaguchi's ranks have been swollen recently.

Mr Yabu says he made the video with the help of anti-Yakuza groups and the education council, which was then threatened. "The gangsters were worried that if we showed it in schools their children would be bullied," Mr Yabu says. "They have some nerve."