Sydney Pollack’s 1974 neo-noir The Yakuza is one of those films that leaves you wondering what the hell was wrong with the cinema-going public and film critics of the day. Performing poorly at the box office and receiving (at best) mixed reviews, this east-meets-west thriller failed to cash in on Hollywood’s desire to replicate the then current trend for Japanese cinema which had reached its zenith with Bruce Lee’s Enter The Dragon the previous year.
The plot concerns jaded WWII veteran and former PI Harry Kilmer (Robert Mitchum) who arrives in Japan at the behest of an old friend and colleague, George Tanner (Brian Keith – he of the ever impressive comb-over; not that the comb-over was impressive, just that his ongoing commitment to it was). Tanner has been doing business with the Yakuza, Japan’s organised crime syndicate who operate under strict codes of conduct and ritual akin to their forebearers the Samurai, and their head honcho, Tono (Eiji Okada) has kidnapped Tanner’s daughter to force his hand in an arms-deal they’re hatching. Because Harry was stationed as a Marine MP in Tokyo during the allied occupation, Japan is a place he has history with and it isn’t long before he hooks up with bar owner Eiko (Keiko Kishi), an old flame, and her brother, Ken (Ken Takakura) a former imperial soldier and Yakuza who believes that, despite their being enemies, he owes Harry a debt for saving the life of, and providing for, his family during the occupation. This debt – known as giri – is to be repaid if Harry is to rescue Tanner’s daughter from Tono’s clutches, and it means that the now peaceful Ken must return to the ways of the Yakuza. Their strike on Tono’s hideout successfully reunites Tanner with his daughter, but brings further complications and double-crossing that sees them both battling to save their lives and the lives of those closest to them.
Watching The Yakuza with modern eyes, it’s really hard to see why this failed. The script was written by none other than Paul Schrader alongside his brother, Leonard, who had originally come up with the idea. The Yakuza was Schrader’s impressive entree into Hollywood with a record-breaking 325,000 US dollars being paid by Warner Brothers for his screenplay. Fresh off the back of Chinatown, Robert Towne was also hired to help knock the Schrader’s story into shape. Directing honours where originally meant to go to Robert Aldrich, but the veteran director of The Dirty Dozen and The Flight of the Phoenix, was ultimately replaced by Sydney Pollack, who had just made the Robert Redford and Barbra Streisand romance The Way We Were. Aldrich’s exit from the picture and the recommendation of his replacement was at the behest of its star, Robert Mitchum, who had previously worked for Aldrich on the 1959 WWII adventure The Angry Hills, a film Aldrich believed to be a great disappointment. It proved to be a smart move from Mitchum, as this really is Pollack in his prime; in hindsight, it’s easy to see that with both this and the following year’s Three Days of the Condor (arguably the ultimate thriller of the post-Watergate era) Pollack had given us a hefty one-two punch of the most distinctive and intelligent thrillers produced in the New Hollywood of the 1970s.
And let’s talk about Robert Mitchum. Because, if there’s plenty of talent behind the camera on this one, there’s a great shining star right in front of it too. With an impressive noirish body of work already behind him, Mitchum is utterly believable in his role as our ageing ‘urban knight’ Harry Kilmer, cutting a truly iconic figure of the genre as he wanders, baggy-eyed and turtle-necked, through the bustling neon-lit, rainy streets of Japan. Like many a noir hero, Harry Kilmer is a man lost to time, unable to get over the great love affair of twenty-odd years ago with Eiko. His reasons for returning to Japan are as much to do with him touching base with this past as they are to save Tanner’s daughter and, when watching him re-aclimatise to a country and a culture he is utterly fascinated with, you’ll end up feeling much the same way. And that’s really the key to The Yakuza, because anyone expecting an offensively racist slug-fest between Mitchum and the Yakuza – a kind of Uncle Sam v ‘fiendish orientals’ return grudge match, or the basic nonsensical framework of Sam Peckinpah’s The Killer Elite from the following year – will soon be disappointed by the reverence to Japan and its culture that the film possesses. As one character says, Mitchum’s character is an unapologetic gaijin, a western man who is knowledgeable and respectful of Japanese values. In creating this character, the Schrader brothers and Towne have certainly done their homework, making for a deeply intelligent and enlightening cinematic experience, and one which is enhanced by the presence of Ken Takakura. Takakura was the homegrown number one star of Yakuza drama and the man they called ‘Japan’s Clint Eastwood’. As Ken-San, ‘the one who does not smile’, his thousand-yard-stare performance of a man who is bound by his own unique code is just as impressive and iconic as Mitchum’s own, and their alliance – uneasy yet considerate and mutually respectful – is really absorbing and entertaining to watch. It’s a testament to Mitchum’s generosity as a performer (as well as arguably his limitations for too many tough guy heroics at this stage in his career) that Takakura is given such an opportunity to shine in a film that knows that their characters must be treated as equals.
And yet, The Yakuza just didn’t connect with audiences in 1974. The legendary film critic Roger Ebert may have rightly hailed it as “the first American version of Japan’s favourite genre, the yakuza movie” but he awarded it only two and a half stars out of four, advising caution over a plot which he found complicated and the movie’s level of violence. Personally, I didn’t find the plot all that difficult to follow – though I would argue that the Schraders and Towne may have served the script better if they streamlined some of the characters; for example, the film is populated by several secondary characters, including Herb Edelman’s Oliver and James Shigeta’s Goro, whose purpose is principally to educate the audience through the representative characters of either Harry or his hired hand, Dusty (Richard Jordan) on both the finer points of Japanese culture and the backstory as a whole – or all that gory, though with the latter I’ll add the caveat that it’s violence isn’t that grisly for 21st century eyes. There’s such a dark elegance to the violence of The Yakuza that I find it hard to consider it in anyway an unpalatable film based on those terms. This isn’t Tarantino, thankfully; Pollack captures the (admittedly) prolonged combat sequences with a near-balletic grace – untouched by incidental music, your senses are assaulted by the sound of katana swords cutting through the air and of bare feet shuffling upon the floor as determined opponents dance around each other to their deaths. Equally that elegance is also depicted in a wonderfully shagged out vein, as exemplified by the soft cinematography of Kozo Okazaki and Duke Callaghan and by Dave Grusin’s wonderful east-meets-west pleasantly woozy, soporific score, that is neatly evocative of Harry’s character and the hand fate has dealt everyone.
Thankfully, in the forty-odd years since The Yakuza was released, the film has become something of a cult sleeper hit and is now rightly recognised as one of the seminal products both of Hollywood’s disillusioned 1970s output and its desire to capture something of the cultural and cinematic trends of other countries. This latest DVD/Blu-ray release from Warners Premium Collection includes a commentary from Pollack which was previously available on the 2005 DVD release and a vintage promotional featurette on the making of the film.