The Yakuza

"Good"

The Yakuza Review


In 1974, the advertisements for Sidney Pollack's Americanized Japanese gangster movie The Yakuza stated, "A man doesn't forget. A man pays his debts." Well, not in today's economy. But in 1974 paying debts meant something else. It meant honor and obligation and a code of duty among hired killers and thugs. The Japanese yakuza action movie was a staple of Japanese cinema in the 1970s, the films packed with high energy, low budgets, and gratuitous violence. Pollack's westernized version of the genre tamps down the action and examines the yakuza film like an English literature grad student, looking for subtext as characters engage in slow and ponderous dialogues about honor and duty before they erupt and pull out swords and shotguns and turn rooms into abattoirs. Neither a Japanese nor an American action film nor really a philosophical discourse over tea and sushi, The Yakuza doesn't know what it wants to be.

Robert Mitchum plays Harry Kilmer, a retired detective, called back into service by old World War II army pal George Tanner (Brian Keith), who asks for his help in rescuing his daughter, who is being held in Japan by the yakuza. Tanner knows Kilmer is owed a debt of honor by ex-yakuza member Tanaka Ken (Ken Takakura, the big Japanese star of all those '70s yakuza films) and convinces him to travel back to Japan to see if Ken will honor his obligation to Kilmer by infiltrating the yakuza gang holding his daughter and bringing her back home (significantly, the daughter is no more than a unconscious blip on the radar in The Yakuza). Once there, events spin out of control, and Kilmer and Ken become embroiled in ritual obligations and mayhem.

Mitchum delivers a very strong performance in a nothing part. By 1974, Mitchum was one of the few iconic film stars left and his Harry Kilmer draws upon the decades of performances that Mitchum carried around with him like a tarnished halo. When Mitchum walks the dark, neon-laced night streets of Tokyo and the shadows fall on Mitchum's tired and defeated face like melting steel, Mitchum is a walking noir god with a force of virile doom enveloping him. As the film continues and Mitchum is relegated more and more to the sidelines, the audience too feels his despair.

The film is Takakura's as the ex-yakuza brought back into the life. His Tanaka Ken character is like a coiled snake ready to strike, and the film is all about Ken dropping his solemn sang-froid and suddenly exploding into violence, wiping out an entire brigade of bad guys while Mitchum, in a sideshow, blasts away at strays with his shotgun like an unfunny version of Sukiyaki Western Django.

There is plenty to like in The Yakuza (Pollack handles the action sequences with a startling energy and knows how to extract movie star mileage out of Mitchum and Takakura), but there is also plenty to yawn about. Pollack directs most of the film at a slow and deliberate pace. It's all deathly serious stuff with only Mitchum's homegrown cynicism to break the pallor.

Pollack doesn't really care about his story. He doles out plot points in large chunks told to his leads by minor players (certain plot developments are articulated by an extra to Ken as they play pachinko) in order to get around the story and the action scenes as quickly as possible, hurting the film and making the project unique in the worst possible sense.

Most egregiously, Pollack's take on Japan has aged badly. In The Yakuza, the Japanese are still mysterious and dangerous. This dialogue exchange is typical. Mitchum remarks to his friend about Japan, "Everywhere I look, I can't remember a thing." His friend replies, "It's still there. Farmers in the countryside may watch TV from their tatami mats and you can't see Fuji through the smog, but don't let that fool you. It's still Japan and the Japanese are still Japanese." The world has changed a lot since 1974 and in particular so have East-West relations. Today most people realize that, East or West, we are all schmucks, but for The Yakuza one leg is still straddling the Think Fast Mr. Moto era.

The DVD includes audio commentary by Pollack and a vintage making-of trailer.

Aka The Brotherhood of the Yakuza.

Last straw, Miss Golightly!



Facts and Figures

Run time: 112 mins

In Theaters: Saturday 1st March 1975

Distributed by: WARNER BROTHERS PICTURES

Production compaines: Warner Bros. Pictures

Reviews

Contactmusic.com: 3 / 5

Rotten Tomatoes: 50%
Fresh: 5 Rotten: 5

IMDB: 7.3 / 10

Cast & Crew

Director: Sidney Pollack

Producer: Michael Hamilburg, Sidney Pollack

Starring: as Harry Kilmer, Ken Takakura as Tanaka Ken (as Takakura Ken), as George Tanner, as Wheat, as Dusty, as Eiko (as Kishi Keiko), as Tono (as Okada Eiji), as Goro, Kyosuke Mashida as Kato, Christina Kokubo as Hanako, Eiji Go as Spider (as Go Eiji), Louis Chirillo as Louise, M. Hisaka as Boyfriend, William Ross as Tanner's Guard, Akiyama as Tono's Guard, Harada as Goro's Doorman

Also starring: ,

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