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Monday, February 24, 2014

Gangs of Old Japan

Yakki fighting in the streets of Edo.
The next few sculpts I've commissioned for Steve Barber are figures I hope to paint into a couple old Japanese street gangs (such as those found in the streets of Edo.) Since I'm trying to sell my bushi (my armored samurai), that leaves my unarmored samurai left over. I have a good selection for some nice chambara duels, but I'd like to build a couple small gangs for a little skirmishing in the streets of Edo.

A part of launching into these projects I enjoy is learning some of this historical aspects of everything. Unfortunately, there is very little in English on the subject of Japanese street gangs. But what little I found was still interesting (I think the subject would be a perfect fit for an Osprey book.) Here are a few types of gangs (keep in mind, this is from memory and from only a few scant sources spread all over.)

"I'm bored, fellas. Hey, I know: Let's dress like nutballs
 and go coo-coo bananas all over the streets of Edo!"
Hatamoto-yakko: With the unification of Japan came peace. And peace brought a lot of samurai without anything to do, especially to the capitol Edo. Some of these bored samurai formed gangs that would take to the streets with crime and violence toward the lower classes. These gangs would sometimes consist of both samurai and some lower-ranking servants, and were collectively named hatamoto-yakko.

Kabuki-mono: Many of the hatamoto yakko (and other imitators) wore outrageous outfits -- items from the west, bright colors, women's kimonos. They also wore their hair in wild fashions, and would partake in abnormal/eccentric/rebelious behavior. (I can't remember where I read it but) Kabuki theater was inspired by the odd behaviors and garish colors of the kabuki-mono.

Machi-yakko: Many gangs were formed from the lower classes within a town (machi) to help protect the towns  people from the hatamoto-yakko, and these two groups would often clash. A western equivalent of machi-yakko might be the vigilante groups of the old west.
Later, the machi-yakko would become more like typical gangs who engaged in robbery, protection rackets and violence. It was the machi-yakko who would eventually evolve into the Yakuza.

Otokodate: Not really related to street gangs -- and not even a historical class, the Otokodate (roughly translating to "noble knight") was an archetype role found in the Kabuki theater, but it still lends itself easily to a role in gaming. The otokodate were samurai or ronin who would use their skill to help the lower classes. Robin Hood would be a good example in western literature. In Japanese movies the otokodate role might include the character Sanjuro in "Yojimbo," or more famously, the samurai in "Seven Samurai."

Others: And, of course, there were also just your regular gangs of bandits, robbers, thieves, killers, fugitives etc., those like you see in "Seven Samurai" and "Yojimbo."

The New Figures
So I've kept the new Steve Barber commissions simple. The first is a swordsman similar to one of those you can see among the henchmen in "Yojimbo." I will be able to convert it to carry a sword or yari.
Green modeled from a bandit in "Yojimbo."
It also comes with a separate head so that you can mix and match, giving the figure a low-ranking peasant head, or a higher-ranking samurai head. This figure will be the basic pose that will fill the ranks of my yakki/kabuki-mono.

The next sculpt will be a samurai in the act of drawing his katana. He'll be wearing travelling clothes (haori jacket, geta sandals and straw hat.) His head is also separate for easy conversions. This pose will be versatile, being able to fill the role as a gang boss, a travelling ronin or samurai noble.

I have a third sculpt in line. The pose is meant to hold a spear, but can easily hold a sword as well. He will fit in with any of the gangs or can serve as a peasant. Existing figures within the range can finish off the edges of a gang.

The makings of a machi-yakko?
I have a bunch of peasants armed in a variety of ways. So I already have a good basic machi-yakko gang. The new figures will form the hatamoto-yakko/kabuki-mono. They'll be the "evil" side of the skirmishes (though, they'll be prettier) in my games.

For painting, I LOVE the concept of the Kabuki-mono, only because I know I'll be able to explode my palette with the new figures; no more muted colors and darks and browns. I can break open some bright reds, yellows, greens and blues, and see what garish designs I can come up with to paint on the clothes.

Final note: For what I think is an excellent (movie) representation of kabukimono vs. machi-yakko, I recommend you see the movie "Ichi the Blind." It's essentially a Zatoichi movie, but with a woman cast as the blind sword master. The protagonists are the local gangsters (machi-yakko,) who are shown as a benevolent organization serving their town. And the antagonists? Well, they have kabuki-mono written all over them. If you've been patient enough to get this far, click this link and enjoy a clip from Ichi. See if you can spot the kabuki-mono:


  1. Sounds like a real hoot. I have a bunch of old Okko figs I could use. Any thoughts on rules to use. I own all the rules produced by Ganesha Games. Looking for something down and dirty while I wait for machiinas to arrive.

    1. Oh- I forgot I was going to mention rules!
      I'm currently using Red Sand Black Moon with some homebrew samurai weapon stats. The game seems to handle 3 or 4 figures per side easily. Though, since the fighters are unarmored (and die quickly), I think it could handle more. In any case, when not skirmishing, the game is perfect for samurai duels. It's also quite deadly, especially when you add the aiming rules.

      Ronin seems to be the go-to these days, but the Blades and Heroes series by Ganesha should work fine.

      Back to Two Hour Wargames, I think Chain Reaction; Swordplay would also work.

    2. ... And thanks for pledging for Machinas.
      I can't wait until everybody has their copies and are racing the wastes!

  2. Loving the historical overview, thanks!

  3. wow painted figures perfect ..very nice .....thanks