Anthony Bourdain may not be the drug-addled antihero he was back in the 1980s, but gritty underworlds remain near and dear to his heart. That's certainly evident in his latest project, Get Jiro: Blood and Sushi, prequel to the New York Times bestseller Get Jiro!, which tells the story of a young Tokyo mobster—or Yakuza —who moonlights as a sushi apprentice.
Illustrated by artist Alé Garza and co-written with novelist Joel Rose, Blood and Sushi stays true to the graphic novel genre, combining terse dialogue with splashy fight scenes and dazzling gore. But Bourdain's wry sense of humor and encyclopedic knowledge of Japanese culture lend the book an upbeat complexity that fans of his writing and TV shows will appreciate.
"The Yakuza are a fun subject," Bourdain tells Maxim. "So I wanted to meld that with my own desires for a world where people who disrespect sushi are killed."
Maximcaught up with the globetrotting host of CNN's Parts Unknown to discuss the Yakuza, his favorite Japanese action movies, and his lifelong obsession with comic book violence.
What about the graphic novel medium appeals to you?
I’m a frustrated underground comic artist. I was a comic book collector as a kid and wanted to be a comic book artist. I wanted to draw my own filthy, ultraviolent underground comics until I was about 14 or 15 and realized that, while I was considered to be good at drawing, I was in no way dedicated or talented enough to approach in quality the kind of stuff I admired. So when I was given the opportunity very late in life to collaborate on a graphic novel, I jumped at the chance. I’m just living out my frustrated little boy dream.
What was the extent of your collaboration?
Everything—from the very beginning, creating the characters and the situations and environment. With Joel Rose, it was a page-by-page thing. Joel has a lot of experience writing graphic novels. He’s much better at the pacing and working with the artists to sort of take a story and have it play out in a graphic way. I’d say he’s an expert in that regard. But with the characters and dialogue, we all worked together.
The book is inspired by Japanese Yakuza crime flicks. Can you explain how you developed an appreciation for that particular genre?
I grew up in a house where we watched a lot of films, even as a little kid. So for me, it was Akira Kurosawa’s samurai flicks very early on. By my teens years, I was watching Kurosawa’s noirs and urban crime pictures, and it was really only a matter of time before I started watching stuff like Battles Without Honor and Humanity. I just really love that whole genre, especially the 60's stuff—good, violent, highly stylized stuff. I’m something of a Japanophile, and more so over the years. It’s an imagined world that I like to spend time in. And in the real world I like to spend time in it, as well. I love sushi and I’ve spent a fair amount of time in Tokyo, and the yakuza are hard to miss. They operate in a very overt way, even in modern day Japan.
Have you ever had any run ins with the Yakuza?
No, I think it’s really, really rare for a Westerner to have any business dealings or casual interactions with them. When you’re talking about a predatorial organization like that, they tend to work within certain constraints. So, no, I have no real interactions with Yakuza other than observing from afar. It is funny, because I have a lot of tattoos, and, basically, any tattoos are forbidden at any hotel swimming pools, any hot springs or public baths. So I’ve been stopped many times, as soon as I take my shirt off by the pool, some embarrassed-looking Japanese staffer comes running up to me with something to cover up my tattoos. It’s a diplomatic way of saying no Yakuza by banning tattoos across the board. I do these Yakuza stories the same way I’d do a cowboy story. I’m not a cowboy, and I don’t know any, but it seems like a lot of fun. I tend to like lurid, ultraviolent, sexy graphic novels, and I was writing the graphic novel that I would’ve liked to have read when I was 14 or 15.
If you were going to give someone an introduction to the Yakuza film genre, how would you pitch it?
The plots are, generally speaking, classic Greek tragedy material—revenge, jealousy, sibling rivalries, business disputes, affairs of the heart leading to violence. As far as story structure and situations, it’s like The Godfather or any other classic, almost operatic crime story. Big themes familiar to anyone anywhere. But the nuts and bolts and customs and practices of the Yakuza differ from mafia flicks or American crime flicks. It’s a more lush setting. The details are different. Often, the weapons of choice are different. And in real life, the body count is very different.
Can you give us your top five Yakuza films?
Battles Without Honor and Humanity, it’s a trilogy, so that’s three films right away. It’s essentially the entire history of a crime family from the post-war period up to present day, and it’s really terrific. Then the Black Society Trilogy by Takashi Miike is really extraordinary. Then the Beat Takeshi films, like Sonatine, are also really, really good. And the Shinya Tsukamoto films, like Tokyo Fist.
Are you still reading graphic novels?
Years ago, back when I was taking drugs back in the 80's, I sold a pretty impressive and valuable comic collection. To some extent, I’ve been reconstituting that—classic Will Eisner Spirit comics, my old Zap Comix by R. Crumb, Terry and the Pirates by Milton Caniff. So there was a hole in my heart that needed feeling, and I had to go buy them all over again. I don’t keep up with much of the modern stuff. I’ve been more reconstituting influences. Those are really important to me.
And are you going to continue working in the graphic novel form?
I hope so. Like I said, I like ultraviolent, lurid, escapist stuff. And I don’t get an opportunity to do that on my TV or in my nonfiction. So this is really fun, to work with really talented artists, and my longtime friend and associate Joel Rose. I like making things and this is a very different type of collaboration than I’m used to, so yeah if I had the opportunity to tell more stories this way, I’d be delighted.