Saitama, Japan (CNN)Ryuichi Baba’s face contorts in pain as he falls down dead.
Moments later, Baba springs back to life and makes a thumbs up at the cheering crowd. His stylized death scene just wrapped up a shoot for “Crazy Fighter,” a low-fi action film starring martial arts fighters and ex-gangsters.
Baba spent 20 years with the mafia, only escaping his life of crime six years ago. Now a member of the Takakura-gumi acting agency, he’s part of a crew of around 60 reformed ex-gangsters who find purpose and retribution in playing their former selves.
And their efforts are slowly gaining traction in a country where gangsters are still feared and stigmatized.
“I never aspired to be an actor, but I thought that if I became recognizable and wasn’t a nobody, it would be harder for the mob to hurt me,” Baba told CNN. “That’s why I deliberately put myself out into the media spotlight.”
In Japan, organized crime groups are called the yakuza or boryokudan. Known for their strict hierarchies and honor codes, these groups engage in everything from extortion and money laundering to drugs and sex trafficking.
Far from being underground organizations, many are registered with the police and have an established presence across the country. The National Police Agency (NPA) even lists the business addresses of some yakuza organizations on their website.
During their heyday in the 1960s, the yakuza operated internationally and had as many as 184,091 members belonging to 5,216 groups in 1963, according to the Japan’s Ministry of Justice. Over the decades since, stringent crackdowns led to a steady decline in their numbers.
From 2010 to 2011, a series of regulations made it harder for gangsters to survive as it became illegal to recruit yakuza, pay them off, or share profits with them. Even securing mobile phone contracts and renting out apartments became more difficult.
The laws hit the yakuza hard. Earlier this year, Japan’s National Police Agency announced that the number of gangsters was at its lowest level in years.
Yet despite a domestic fall in their numbers, internationally, the yakuza continue to fascinate observers, with gangster films such as “Kill Bill” by US director Quentin Tarantino, “Outrage” by Japanese director Takeshi Kitano and video game series like “Yakuza” contributing to their cult appeal.
‘I lived like a slave’
Inside a cramped room in a small town on the outskirts of Tokyo, several laptops whir while fans spew out cool air. It looks like a hacker’s paradise and is where Baba feels most at peace. These days, as well as acting, he runs his own software business and is carving out another side career as a YouTuber, voicing the character of a wheelchair-bound elderly yakuza boss, Shigewo Jhogashima, in an animated online show.
Baba said he never planned to join the mafia. But, abused by a mother involved with the yakuza and bullied as a kid, he fell into gang life. For 20 years, he made money in any way that he could to avoid getting beaten. He befriended women who worked in the adult entertainment industries and pimped their services to other establishments, turning a profit he passed on to the gang.
According to Baba, he tried fleeing a few times, but was always chased down, brought back and punished. Most of his teeth, he said, didn’t survive the beatings. He now wears a false set.
“I lived like a slave,” Baba said. “I was so scared. I felt like (the mob) had me under mind-control.”
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