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Gangsters, yen, and corrupt bankers hit the big screen

Yuko Ishiyama, stumbling out of a darkened movie theater and into the light, is abuzz about the film that has just ended: a two-hour thriller about-of all things-the buttoned-down world of Japanese banking.

Banks don't normally make for blockbuster drama. But what Ms. Ishiyama and other filmgoers across Japan are flocking to see is not only taut entertainment, but also a substantive look at an issue rarely discussed until now.

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Based on an actual 1997 banking fiasco, the film looks at what one reviewer called the "iron triangle" of bureaucracy, business, and gangsters that has "dominated ... Japan" since World War II.

"Cursed-The Financially Corrupt Islands" tells the story of a powerful Japanese bank brought to its knees after investigators learn of its illegal loans to gangster extortionists. When police discover other dirty-money deals, the scandal expands, threatening to shake the worlds of government and business.

For Ms. Ishiyama, a college senior who will start working at a bank when she graduates, the film was a window onto the real world. "I could see the inside of a bank as well as the power politics inside the organization," she says.

And though gangster ties to businesses and banks have only recently become fodder for public outrage and discussion, Ishiyama is convinced that times have changed. "I'm not worried," she says, "I believe younger, middle-age bankers will change old banking customs."

In the film, they certainly try, and their efforts-beautifully filmed and well-acted-make for riveting viewing. The story centers on Hiroshi Kitano, a decent and hard-working middle manager who is appalled by the board of directors' vacillations when the gangster ties come to light.

In a bid to save the bank, Kitano and three other like-minded managers launch an internal investigation and find a clean board member to replace the former president. But their central stumbling block lies in the bank's former chairman and ongoing kingmaker, an arrogant and powerful figure who also happens to be Kitano's father-in-law.

Kitano's family troubles are skillfully woven into the plot, along with the separate efforts of a hard-headed prosecutor and a determined reporter from a foreign-news service.

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For peering underneath Japan Inc., director Masato Harada is being rewarded with huge crowds and good reviews. "People haven't seen anything like this before," he explains, articulate and relaxed in a black T-shirt and blazer. Plans are underway to show the film overseas as well.

Mr. Harada identified with the story in part because of his father's unhappy experiences as a banker. He says viewers are connecting with the film because it reflects their own experiences, as well as recent history.

The film is based on a 1997 scandal surrounding a bank that made illegal loans to racketeers. The subsequent investigation uncovered corrupt practices throughout the banking industry. "Jubaku" relives the scandal, and also turns a spotlight on deep-rooted flaws in Japan's economic system - lifetime employment, rigid hierarchy, and collusion between supposed corporate competitors.

On a Web site chat room set up to promote the film, Harada says some 10,000 people a week logged on to write about parallels between the film and their own work experiences.

This is probably a film that only could have been made in this decade. The 1990s have left Japan's economic miracle tattered and frayed, with the country slogging through its worst recession since World War II.

A series of financial crises have also battered public morale. Taxpayers here have been handed a bill of at least $70 billion to bail out banks saddled with billions in bad loans recklessly made in the 1980s. That carelessness is now leading to a massive restructuring of the banking industry, including mergers, the nationalization of two banks, and the takeover of a third by a US firm.

Adding insult to injury, as far as Joe Public is concerned, is the fact that many top banking officials are remaining in their positions.

"The real bank business is much murkier and dirtier than the story in the film," says one regional banker, who asked not to be named. "If the four reformers in the film were in a real bank, they would have been terminated or demoted by executives. I also thought, watching the film, that most banks have the same problems with sokaiya, or gangster extortionists.

Sokaiya are not taken lightly here. Indeed, the only limit the studio placed on Harada and the scriptwriters he worked with was with regard to gangsters.

They were asked not to interview any and told not to go into too much detail about them in the film. "Because we may have faced trouble," explains Harada.

But he expects his film to break the ice. "There are probably more films about sokaiya coming," he says. "We only touched the surface; there are many more interesting activities to look at."

At the film's end, the middle manager Kitano encounters the gangsters once again, and in a voice-over, tells us that many banks still maintain shadowy ties to the extortionists.

Despite the sokaiya's menace in the film, though, Harada says the real villains in "Jubaku" are the old men who are set in their ways and will not relinquish power.

He offers his own solution to that problem.

"A lot of the problems you see in "Jubaku" are rooted in male chauvinism," he says with a smile. "They could end if banks would just put women in management."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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