Interview with the Translator: Hills of Silver Ruins, Outlaws

Kate: Speaking of a dangerous environment, the outlaws introduced in Book 1 of Hills of Silver Ruins evoke the Wild, Wild West.

Americans look back on that time with fondness, emphasizing the independence and ignoring the starving-to-death factor. Ono is combining both, of course. The outlaws here are far more vicious and uncontrollable, although, like Elias's gang in Person of Interest, they can be honorable within specific parameters.

Is the "wild" past of Japan like the Catholic past for Protestant Englishers? Fascinating but please, none of it here? Are Ono's gangs more like the Japanese perception of yakuza (which can include its own code of honor)?

Are yakuza cowboys?

Eugene: It depends on the cowboys. Certainly not the "traditional" Hollywood Gene Autry cowboy. The analogy works better if you shift the historical references to the Lincoln County War and Billy the Kid. Those were Battles Without Honor and Humanity, which is also the title of the yakuza movie series produced during the 1970s. The series redefined the genre the same way that Sam Peckinpah did the western.

The modern yakuza came into their own during the Occupation when they took over and ran the black market. And fought each other for territory. The yakuza during this period compare well to the land gangs in Hills of Silver Ruins, as they assumed control over the entire local economy from the supply chains down to the retail level. And like the land gangs, they were a byproduct of government policies.

In the short span of time between the end of the war and the beginning of the Occupation, corrupt politicians and military officers stole billions and then resold their ill-gotten gains on the black market. It was a moral outrage, of course, but it would have been better for all concerned to regulate those markets rather than attempt to stamp them out. Society simply couldn't survive without the black markets.

To be sure, even at the time, they were seen as a necessary evil. Their persistent popularity has much to do with the ability of the police (and the groups themselves) to insulate themselves from the general population.

During the height of the Cold War, the yakuza also supported right-wing political factions that could be deployed against left-wing "agitators." Thus the yakuza also came to fashion themselves as a modern Shinsengumi defending "traditional values." Unsurprisingly, the Shinsengumi are hugely romanticized today, though they were more likely "a bunch of hitmen hired by a repressive regime."

But that Cold War is over, and over the past quarter century or so, the police have cracked down hard and pushed the yakuza further and further into the fringes (and at the same time into legitimate businesses). Now less of a threat unless expressly sought out, the Gene Autry version has reemerged in shows like The Way of the Househusband, The Yakuza's Guide to Babysitting, and Hinamatsuri.

One of the running jokes in The Way of the Househusband has Tatsu running into yakuza who have aged out of the business or whose organizations are simply no longer in business.

On the other hand, last year's ultraviolent (and well-received) Akiba Maid War, which restages Battles Without Honor and Humanity in 1990s Akihabara but makes all the participants cute girls from warring maid cafes, is a paean to the past. Like a yakuza babysitter, the dark humor rises from the juxtaposition of cute girls in frilly outfits mercilessly spilling blood like cinematic yakuza from fifty years ago.

Though even there, the series concludes with a present-day reminiscence about the 1990s as "way back then."

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