The Yakuza is historically acknowledged for introducing the conventional of the Japanese gangster movie to American audiences. James Monaco speculated that: “Warner Brothers must have seen in it a chance to expand on the chop-socky violence craze which was quite popular at the time.” Commercially, their plans backfired, as the film’s box-office returns were quite underwhelming.
Here, Harry Kilmer (Robert Mitchum), a private investigator, goes to Japan to rescue an American girl, the daughter of his old war friend George Tanner (Brian Keith), who has been kidnapped by a yakuza. Tanaka Ken (Ken Takakura), a former gangster, helps him in his quest. He is the estranged brother of Eiko (Kishi Keiko), a woman with whom Kilmer had a love affair while stationed in Japan at the end of World War II, and whom he re-encounters after many years.
Director Sydney Pollack stated that the movie was about “the limits to which one will go to keep one’s word,” and a melancholy acknowledgment that the two lead characters of The Yakuza “are over the hill and existing in a world that has passed them by.” The theme of honor is central to the movie. Through it, The Yakuza finds a meeting point between the eastern and the western cultures.
The Yakuza was written by Paul Schrader (who based the screenplay on a story by brother Leonard) and re-written by Robert Towne. Throughout his career, Schrader has written many works and articles about the Japanese culture and Japanese cinema. He later directed the 1985 film on author Mishima Yukio, Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters. Schrader shows a profound understanding, empathy, and respect for said culture. As a result, despite its crude moments of violence and gore, this Japanese gangster movie is actually far less stylized, naturalistic, and even more sophisticated than its Japanese counterparts.
When taken at a linear, more superficial layer, the story of the film may appear confusing. But it is also not as interesting as the complicated shifting relationships between the lead characters of the film. The prevailing interest in this aspect is seen by Pollack’s lack of overbearing stylization. Monaco has suggested that the camera is “just there to record the performances and really does little else.” But this is precisely what makes The Yakuza so compelling. This approach calls for a slowing down of moments that other American Japanese gangster flicks – like Ridley Scott’s Black Rain (1989) – or other films made for a similar target audience would overlook. Perhaps, Pollack’s style was also informed by Mitchum, featured here in a highlight mid-late career performance. “I found him to be like a very, very powerful lazy horse,” the director said of his leading actor. “He wants to walk as slow as possible and wants to get away with doing as little as possible. You used to really have to push him. He won’t offer to the full emotional nature of a performance, at least he didn’t for me until you went after him for a little bit. … He’s full of feeling, which he just keeps at bay most of the time. Every once in a while, there’s an opportunity in the acting for it to come out.” Curiously, the same could be said about The Yakuza. – ★★★★
THE YAKUZA | 1975, USA / Japan | Directed by – Sydney Pollack / Produced by – Michael Hamilburg, Sydney Pollack, Koji Shundo / Written by – Leonard Schrader, Paul Schrader, Robert Towne / Music by – Dave Grusin / Cinematography – Koko Okazaki, Duke Callaghan / Edited by – Tom Giudice, Thomas Stanford / Starring – Robert Mitchum, Ken Takakure, Kishi Keiko, Richard Jordan, Brian Keith / Running time: 112 mins.
Note: This review was written in reference to the screening of The Yakuza at the 2017 Il Cinema Ritrovato. The film was screened as part of a strand focusing on selected works from Robert Mitchum’s filmography titled: “Two Faces of Robert Mitchum.” The Yakuza was screened from an original 35mm print, from the Swedish Film Institute.