Minbo is, all at the same time, a satire of modern yakuza, a laundry-list of Japanese mafia intimidation tactics, and a quick education on why Japanese anti-yakuza law works like it does (or at least did at the time). And if ever a movie was a direct response to the introduction of a new law, it's this one. Somehow, on top of all of this, it manages to be a genuinely good movie.
Minbo centers around a large Japanese hotel trying to qualify for the privilege of holding an international political summit. The problem is that the staff has been kowtowing to yakuza for far too long and they've managed to infest the place. Executives appoint a rather frightened and unprepared man named Suzuki to face down these experienced criminals with the help of a bellhop, Wakasugi (is that a Jingi Naki Tatakai reference?). It doesn't go very well and the two make mistake after mistake.
They try to pay the men off, first, letting the gang know that they're willing to pay. Then they, at the behest of the yakuza themselves, show up at the gang headquarters, putting them in a situation surrounded from all sides by men with insane tattoos and missing fingers. In response to one incident, they even write a letter to the gang apologizing, giving the gang written proof that the hotel is taking responsibility. Later in the film, the gang even rolls out the speaker trucks - these big military-style vans covered in loudspeakers blaring whatever undesired information they like. Finally, it's too much for Suzuki.
Suzuki is hiding under the table, contemplating the terrible left turn things have taken, when a strange women joins him and Wakasugi under the tablecloth. Mahiro Inoue is Minbo no Onna, which translates to something like "Civilian Crime Woman." She's an attorney who specializes in dealing with yakuza interaction with katagi, or regular citizens.
In 1991, Japan introduced a set of laws called Botaiho, or anti-yakuza countermeasures. The law differs from American and European laws regarding organized crime in that it is administrative rather than criminal. It deals specifically with the way yakuza work. The law basically makes implied threats and intimidation subject to regulation and injunction. It's hard to cart someone off for veiled threats alone, but if someone feels threatened they can request an injunction against the threatening party. Then when the yakuza violates that injunction, they've violated a court order - sort of like someone violating a restraining order.
Ms. Inoue educates Suzuki and Wakasugi on the ins and outs of the Botaiho. It's not quite as spelled out as that, but that's pretty much what it amounts to. The movie is almost an advertisement for the new law. This is how yakuza work, and here's what you can do, it suggests. Ms. Inoue helps the two men setup a space specifically for dealing with yakuza in the hotel with big chairs, an impressive table and gold lettering on the door; all little bits of ego-padding for the yakuza.
This new anti-yakuza trio stands up to the bellowing and table slamming of the yakuza, standing firm through blackmail attempts, extortion, and intimidation. It's inspiring and, to a degree, educational.
When talking about Minbo, though, there's one element not directly part of the film that absolutely must be addressed. Following the release of the film, the gang parodied and mocked in the film was not very happy. Their pride and image are their income and their way of life. Along comes this director doing an incredibly effective job of mocking them. Director Juzo Itami was beaten, his face slashed multiple times, within a week of release. Five years later, when Itami was preparing to make another yakuza film, he threw himself off the roof of an office building. Committed suicide, right. Journalist Jake Adelstein wrote in his book Tokyo Vice that an unnamed source let word leak that Itami was forced off the roof by a gang of five men.
Minbo hit the yakuza right where it hurts, attacking the samurai image yakuza have of themselves, and damaging their image with their "customers," the business owners and citizens of Japan. A strictly educational film wouldn't have left any kind of impact, but a well-written satire like Minbo can gather all kinds of momentum. Unfortunately for the men who harassed Juzo Itami, their revenge for his film might've made it it an instant classic in Japan and a must-watch for anyone interested in Japanese organized crime.