The yakuza, Japan's homegrown mobsters, are favorites of local filmmakers but not documentarians, for reasons entirely understandable. A documentary that seeks to delve into the inner workings of the Yamaguchi-gumi might find an audience, but the hurdles to making it, such as scouting subjects willing to dish openly (and possibly suicidally) on camera, would be formidable. Better to make another TV-friendly program on tuna fishermen.
Documentarian Ken'ichi Oguri, backed by uber-producers Kazuyoshi Okuyama and Chihiro Kameyama, has finessed this difficulty by focusing his new film, "Tokyo Joe: The Man Who Brought Down the Chicago Mob (Mafia o Utta Otoko)," on Ken Eto — a Japanese-American FBI informant who put 15 Chicago mobsters and mob associates behind bars in the 1980s.
Eto was no ordinary snitch. Born in California in 1919 and raised by a harshly disciplinarian father, Eto was a wild, scrappy and highly intelligent kid. He found his true metier in a World War II detention camp, where he fleeced fellow detainees in poker games. After the war, he settled in Chicago, where he honed his skills in card sharping while insinuating himself into the mob-run gambling business.
In 1983, Mafia capo Vincent Solano feared that Eto, recently busted for running a massive numbers operation and out on bail, was going to spill to the cops. He ordered a hit, carried out by two henchmen, who drilled three bullets into Eto's skull in a parked car. Incredibly, Eto survived, and, while recovering in the hospital, decided that Solano's betrayal trumped his loyalty to his Mafia bosses. He entered the FBI's witness protection program and spent the next several years giving testimony that delivered a body blow to the Chicago mob.
Oguri tells this story through interviews, mostly notably with Elaine Smith, the former FBI agent who put Eto behind bars (and later wrote a book about him), Jeremy Margolis, the former federal prosecutor who persuaded Eto to turn snitch, and Steven Eto, Eto's son by his second wife.
These talking heads are fascinating characters in their own right. Smith, who joined the Bureau at the late age of 34 when it was still a mostly male preserve, comes across as a salty, wised-up type, spinning anecdote after engaging anecdote about Eto, his case and the ways of the Chicago mob. Of more than 1,000 victims of mob hits, she claims, Eto was the only one to survive. Steven Eto pungently humanizes his father, who ran numbers out of a coffee shop near home and once memorably told his young son, "If you bring a weapon to a fight, be prepared to kill the guy, because if you don't, you'll have an enemy for the rest of your life."
Eto himself appears only fleetingly on the screen, being badgered by the media after his arrest and testifying as a witness for the prosecution, but he is a riveting presence whose hooded eyes see all but tell nothing. Oguri's film about his exploits is, for anyone interested in Mafia lore, pure manna from wise-guy heaven.
Thanks to Mark Schilling
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