Ikebukuro West Gate Park – 08 – Hard Truths and Soft Landings

The stinger for this week is only a few moments long: a toddler playing with a toy plane falls off a balcony and lands in a bush. He’s fine, but his single mother Ohnuki Yui, age 22, is massacred in the papers and online for letting it happen. Kyouichi and Inogai stop by Majima Produce to give Makoto an unusual job: check in on Yui and ensure she’s okay. When asked why Kyouichi cares, he says it’s because Yui is a fan, and “you have to take care of your fans.”

The day he fell, Yui decided to leave her 3-year-old son Kazushi unattended so she could more closely watch Kyouichi’s ballet in the park, and the fall was the result. It was a stupid, reckless mistake from a young mother, and she’s lucky he wasn’t seriously hurt. But his fall mirrors her own: she works all night, every night at a konbini bento factory to make ends barely meet, and hardly has any time for anything else, including Kazushi…to say nothing of self-care.

As the son of a single mother, Makoto can relate to Yui and Kazushi’s troubles. But he doesn’t know as well as his mother. One meeting with the mother and son and she knows Yui isn’t just on the edge of a cliff; she’s already falling, and if “something isn’t done” she’ll be in trouble.

Sure enough, that trouble arrives in the form of the kind of predator that is common in a big city: men who scout women at the edge of cliffs, and ensuring they land not on their feet, but in the sex industry. The scout appears to Yui to be a new man who is interested in her, and lavishes her with luxurious gifts. As Yui’s mood brightens, Kazushi’s darkens. Both Makoto and his mom notice, and Detective Yoshioka confirms what is  going on with her.

However, scouts like the one working Yui are hard to catch, so he recruits Makoto to follow Yui and gather evidence the scouting is taking place. Makoto hesitates, and rightly notes that the sex industry is not automatically a shameful means of paying the bills, but that ignores the manner in which Yui is being preyed upon. His mom rightfully smacks him on the ass and tells him to get going.

The more Makoto watches from afar as the sex industry scout, Shinji, plays Yui like a cat plays with a mouse, he gets angrier and angrier. But unlike Kyouichi (who would line up and shoot all the internet people denigrating Yui and even wishing death on her) or even his mother (who would walk in and chew Shinji out), Makoto uses his people skills to become fast friends with the guy, starting with complimenting his fancy shoes.

Once Shinji believes Makoto is connected to the Hidaka Group, he’s all too eager to spill the beans about his operation, in hopes one of Hidaka’s clubs or brothels could be a landing spot for his latest catch. As Shinji coldly describes Yui as “the type that can’t get by unless someone looks after her”, Makoto can barely contain his rage, but he remains cheery and enthusiastic about working with the scum.

This pays off when the next time they meet, Makoto doesn’t come alone, but with his mother, Yui, and Kazushi. Makoto plays back the recording of Shinji incriminating himself, and then Yoshioka and the cops come in and arrest him. But while Yui is now free from a predator’s net, she’s still falling. Like the bush that saved Kazushi, she’s in dire need of a soft landing.

Makoto and his mom take Yui and Kazushi to the park, Makoto discovers why Kazushi’s mood had darkened so much since Yui met Shinji: she had been harming him. The bruises on his arms aren’t marks of malice or cruelty; she clearly loves her son, but a desperate, despairing woman grasping for a way to stop her fall.

Despite that love, she cannot help but think of the better job she could get and better life she could live, if only she didn’t have the child of a man she didn’t love. As her tears fall in the heavy rain, Kazushi notices and rushes to her, giving her a hug and telling her it’s “not your fault”. Hearing this out of the literal “mouth of a babe” only makes her tears fall harder.

Makoto’s mother is frank: Yui has pushed as hard as she can, but it hasn’t been enough, and probably won’t be; if she pushes harder still, she may end up killing the child she loves. But there is one option to explore: giving Kazushi up, as in having someone look after him long enough for Yui to get her life in order.

Then Makoto’s mom admits something he never knew: after his dad died shortly after he was born, she was falling off a cliff too, as a single mother with a mound of debt running the produce shop alone. So she placed Makoto in someone else’s custody for two years, worked her ass off, paid off her debt, and only then reunited with her son.

Makoto turned out to be a good boy, and she believes Kazushi can too, if Yui speaks to a caseworker she knows. It’s a drastic and awful choice for a mother to make, but even Yui realizes it’s now time for drastic measures. In order to help her usher in this new difficult but necessary reality, Kyouichi performs his ballet in the rain just for her and Kazushi, appearing to the boy to fly through the air, like his beloved toy airplane.

We then learn from Isogai the true reason Kyouichi cares: like Makoto’s dad, both his parents were killed in an accident when he was young, and he had to live, make a living, and learn ballet in Chicago on his own. As such, he can’t look the other way when he sees a family in turmoil. Kazushi has a mom, and this way he gets to keep her. The next we see Yui, she’s wearing a business suit and pounding the pavement for a full-time job. Her falling has stopped and her landing was soft.

This is the best IWGP yet, and not because it was always easy to watch. Seeing Shinji get collared was righteous fun, but the ep is also unblinkingly frank in the fact that Yui is no saint, yet still doesn’t deserve unrelenting online scorn, nor the dark fate that awaited her on the other end of Shinji’s self predatory machinations. It also makes clear that as long as someone is making their own choices, entering the sex industry isn’t automatically bad.

In addition to the extensive nuance and complexity with which real-world issues are tackled this week is the portrayal of the importance of community, and shared concern for one’s neighbors. If something bad happens to someone and you and others can help, you fucking do it, and good outcomes are the result.

My only two marks against this outing: We still haven’t caught so much of a glimpse of Shungui since she was adopted (seriously…where is she?), and we still don’t know Makoto’s mother’s actual name. Considering her crucial role this week, that’s a pretty big oversight. But these are minor nitpicks in an otherwise strong and compelling episode.

Ikebukuro West Gate Park – 07 – Mars (Enterprises) Attacks!

“Everyone’s so worried about me…What am I, a little boy?” I doubt the people warning Makoto are doing so because they think he’s a kid, but because there is much he has to lose by diving too deep into this latest mess. Like his mother, his newly adopted sister Shungui, the family produce stand, and his reputation as a neutral troubleshooter.

Unfortunately, we don’t see his mom or Shungui either this week or last, which is a shame, not just because they could put the impudence of Makoto’s words into relief and even offer him perspective, but because I like those characters, and Shungui in particular seemed like someone we would be and should be seeing more of. Alas, Makoto is on an island at the beginning of this episode.

Ikebukuro is on the knife’s edge; war could spill onto the streets at any moment…yet he still finds time to work on Toshiaki’s film at the video store. His police buddy informs him “Shadow” is a lone operator, while his Hidaka PR buddy Saru informs him that Mars Enterprises hired both the Shadow and the masked thugs to create imbalance as a preface for expanding into Ikebukuro.

Unfortunately, Takashi is once again ghosting him, and the minute Makoto is off the phone with Saru, he has the bunny mask thug’s knife to his neck, clarifying that he and his guys have a grudge with him and Takashi personally. Bunny Mask is also helpful enough to perform his scene right in front of the “making of” camera, which is just icing for the cake in terms of how sloppy the masked thugs are.

Makoto determines that the masked thugs are Yamamoto and his men, who worked for OK Holdings and were previously run out of town. He informs Hiroto personally, but the Knight is already on his horse, and his men are itching for a confrontation with Takashi for control of the G-Boys present and future.

He finally gets to meet up with Takashi, who notes that one piece his old friend has left out of the equation are the Red Angels. Whether Makoto simply took Kyouichi at his word or has a blind spot due to his officially neutral status, Makoto isn’t willing to entertain the possibility the Angels could exploit the G-Boys civil war to expand their own influence.

Finally, and apparently quite by chance, “Shadow” presents himself to Makoto in the park. He further clarifies matters, saying the only job he did was on Donglong, while the thugs did the jobs on Hiroto’s men. He adds that they did a crap job while both they and Mars used the “Shadow” brand without his consent. This caused Shadow’s reputation to take a hit, and he paid Mars back by beating up each of their board members.

Shadow seems to consider himself an underworld equivalent of Makoto: an independent troubleshooter who works for justice (Shadow works for money; justice is just gravy), and someone for whom “reputation is paramount”. In the interests of preventing war, Makoto decides to ask Shadow to take care of the “weak link”: the war-mongering Hiroto.

Makoto institutes this gambit as much out of a desire to prove he’s not “just some kid” or a “nice guy”, but someone willing to do whatever it takes to protect the peace and balance of his town. But the gambit backfires, as Hiroto’s men blame King for the beating of their Knight and begin the march to war.

After consulting with Takashi once more, Makoto gets Kyouichi to agree to back Takashi in order to “quell the disturbance”. Kyouichi proves himself an honest and honorable man by doing his part, marching his Red Angels between Hiroto’s men and Takashi and declaring an alliance with the latter, then getting Hiroto’s uneasy No.2 to drop his bat and back down with a mere look.

With war averted—arguably way too neatly, but averted all the same—all that’s left is to take out the trash, i.e. Yamamoto and his ragtag quintet of thugs, who end up coming to them as Takashi and Makoto film a scene in Toshiaki’s film. In the adult video section, Yamamoto & Co. surround the two, but suddenly Shadow appears to even the odds. He takes out two of the thugs, and Takashi takes out the remaining three including delivering a knockout blow to Yamamoto.

The excellent fight scene really underscored how overmatched Yamamoto and his thugs were. Once the masked thugs identities and motives were made clear, they never had a realistic chance to instigate a full-scale turf war, especially since revenge was Yamamoto’s primary goal. Hopefully he won’t need a third demonstration of the futility of seeking revenge.

Toshiaki finally finishes his film, and it’s a hit, so he plans to make more, and Makoto notes the firm dedication inherent in Toshiaki’s efforts. He saw that same dedication in Shadow’s no-nonsense way of operating, and in Kyouichi’s dedication to protecting the town he’s come to like. After dancing on a razor’s edge these last two episodes, Makoto seems content to continue dedicating himself to selling fruit. Gotta pay the bills!

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Ikebukuro West Gate Park – 06 – Shadows in the Knight

Ikebukuro is a town of balance, and that balance ensures peace. But one otherwise ordinary night, a group from the G-Boys Hiroto Faction are pulled from their van and viciously beaten by toughs in animal masks. Makoto is busy acting in an indie film being directed by the clerk of a doomed video store.

It’s a fitting setting in which to begin for an episode about the wider downfall of Ikebukuro’s hard-fought peace. Also on the film crew is Crow, an underling of Hiroto, whose boys were hit by the animal maskers, apparently led by a mysterious figure called “Shadow”. Hiroto suspects the attack was a warning from his boss, “King” Takashi, to keep his ambitions in check.

Before Makoto can confer with Takashi, Hiroto’s boys are hit by the Shadow again, and hard. In lieu of any word from King, Makoto meets with another childhood friend, Saru, the Hidaka Group’s PR man. He knows that Shadow is apparently elite muscle-for-hire, and that Hidaka’s position is that balance should be maintained, using his ice cream to illustrate his point.

He also warns his friend Makoto to “know where to draw the line” in his involvement, lest he end up in trouble. That’s when Hiroto reaches out to Makoto through Crow, and Makoto learns Hiroto is now having his men call him “Knight”—a direct challenge to King. With command of a third of the G-Boys, among them some of the toughest fighters, his faction has been waiting for someone to “pull the trigger” at them for some time.

In other words, even if it is King sending Shadow against his men, it doesn’t matter. He wanted an excuse to move anyway, and he got it. The spark has been lit, and the Hiroto faction is a tinderbox. Makoto gets him to agree not to move against Takashi until he’s spoken to him, but Hiroto warns if his boys are attacked one more time, it will be war.

With Takashi still not taking his calls, Makoto has no choice but to meet with the Red Angels instead. Kyouichi says he isn’t attacking Hiroto’s boys, as he has no reason to start a war that will endanger his people. However, he hastens to add, should one drop of Red Angel blood spill from the crossfire of an imminent G-Boys civil war, they’ll show no mercy.

Makoto walks down a dark Ikebukuro alley late at night with Sunshine 60 looming in the background. The mass of the tower behind him makes him look that much smaller and more alone; the town’s chief diplomat who has yet to make contact with the leader of its most powerful gang. Even as he makes no progress, he is followed by a sketchy guy in the shadows whose face he never sees, perhaps as subtle and bloodless warning as he’s going to get to quit while he’s still neutral.

As timing would have it, Takashi calls him immediately after the frightening encounter, and they meet in West Gate to talk for the first time. King hesitated to answer his buddy’s calls because he didn’t want him involved, because he can’t guarantee his safety this time. This enrages Makoto, with good reason.

When you think about it, he is one of the strongest and bravest players in this town precisely because he works alone and has no sworn allegiance, except to Ikebukuro herself. He commits to finding out who the Shadow is and who sent him to attack Hiroto’s men. As if to answer that question for the audience, the camera lingers on Isogai as he and Kyouichi walk on a bridge as cop cars race past.

Makoto and King end up shaking hands, symbolically sealing Makoto’s fate as a declared ally of King and thus a legitimate combatant in the G-Boys war to come. Because it is coming; and Makoto is out of time to stop it. The Shadow attacked Hiroto’s boys a third time, and this time a group from Dongfeng were hit as well.

Hiroto justifiably doesn’t care about the attack on Dongfeng muddying the waters; too much of his boys’ blood has been spilt. Just as Makoto is confident he can keep both King and Knight at bay, Knight draws his sword: he’s quitting the G-Boys, and no longer taking orders from Takashi. Their meeting in the alley was but a mere formality.

Maintaining peace and balance is not Hiroto’s goal. He’s thirsted for power, and is now taking the opportunity to grab it. Once he’s in charge of the G-Boys, he dreams of expanding their influence across all of Tokyo. Obviously, this is folly, and Takashi tells Makoto that it’s a product of his lack of strategic experience (Lao Tzu would also have some criticisms of Knight’s approach).

The episode ends with another suspicious lingering camera shot at Kyouichi, who is apparently pleased with how things are going. Did he and/or Isogai hire Shadow to destabilize the G-Boys? Were they simply biding their time all along? Or are they just looking forward to their largest rival eating away at itself from the inside, poised to fill the vacuum that results?

Whatever the case, IWGP is on a certified roll, following up two strong case-of-the-week episodes with a headfirst dive into the central gang conflict. It may be too late to keep a war from starting, but perhaps Makoto can still find a way to end it before it causes too much damage.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Ikebukuro West Gate Park – 05 – The Golden Land

IWGP has done a great job mixing up Majima Makoto’s cases-of-the-week thus far, underlining how valuable someone with his skills and relationships can be to a diverse array of people. This week he’s approached by Lin Gaotai, an advisor to immigrant labor trainees from China. He is looking for 19-year-old trainee Guo Shungui. If she’s not found within a week, she and all 250 of her fellow trainees will be forcibly deported back to China.

This isn’t just a case-of-the-week for Makoto, but a kind of wake-up call, as he puts it prior to the OP. He’d never thought of himself or the people of Ikebukuro and Japan in general as “blessed”, but they most certainly are compared to the crippling  poverty of rural China from where both Lin and Guo hail. The lure of life-changing pay leads to fierce competition; Lin and Guo are where they are only due to working themselves to the bone.

At first, Makoto isn’t sure what to make of Lin, a “trainee advisor” who not only knows enough kung fu to scare off some Dongleng toughs, but has a keen enough grasp of Japanese to speak appropriately formally and modestly to the local Dongleng boss. He even bails the less courteous Makoto out of what could have been serious trouble. The boss is loath to give up Guo, but when Lin asks the boss’ boss in Shanghai for a favor, Guo is freed from her position at the China Doll Hostess Club.

When Makoto finally meets Guo, she looks quite a bit more glamorous than the photo provided by Lin, but the look of “the incurable illness of poverty” is still in her eyes. Turns out she didn’t know leaving her sweatshop would cause 250 people to be deported; she accepted the Dongleng hostess job because her father’s health back in China was worsening and she needed more money fast. For a 19-year-old to have to sell her body to save her family is a heartbreaking choice, but Makoto respects it’s her choice to make.

Ultimately, Guo weighs her father’s life with those of the 250 and, knowing firsthand how hard they all worked to make it to Japan (and their financial reasons for doing so), decides she’ll return to the factory. The day before she’s to leave, Makoto takes her out on the town. Guo marvels at everything from the beauty and vitality of Tokyo’s people to the newer cars and cleaner streets. Makoto can’t help but see it all in a whole new light. She even meets Kyouichi, who dances for her.

That night when Makoto’s mom feeds him, Lin, and Guo, we learn that when Lin brought up the Japanese woman who adopted him, he was planting the seed for Makoto’s mom to adopt Guo, which is what she decides to do. Guo, obviously, is overwhelmed with joy and gratitude, as she didn’t want to leave Tokyo but also really didn’t want to work in the sex industry. Makoto’s mom took one look at Guo’s hardworking hands and knew she’d be a good addition to her produce stand.

Makoto not only gains some welcome perspective on his extremely fortunate lot in life relative to other parts of the world, but gains an lovely sister as well! I am one am glad the episode ends on a high note, and hope we’ll get to see more of Guo. Rather than ending up like the first pen she used to learn Japanese—devoid of ink without anything to show for it—Guo will be free to realize her potential and live the life she deserves.

Rating: 4/5 Stars