Keiko Kishi

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The Yakuza Review


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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.

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