THE YAKUZA —–the simple answer to “Why watch?” is “Robert Mitchum with a .45 and double-barreled shotgun and Japanese icon Ken Takakura with a samurai sword, versus nineteen smugly ruthless gangsters begging for vengeance.” Next question?
Directed by Sydney Pollack, this 1974 meditation on family honor, karmic debt and pitiless payback was written by first-timer Paul Schrader, then retooled by veteran Robert Towne, with genesis in a story by Schrader’s brother Leonard (Kiss Of The Spider Woman), who lived in Japan during the 60s and 70s. While there, he was was able to get a rare outsider look into the subculture of the Yamaguchi-gumi, Kyoto’s dominant Yakuza gangster family.
“American saw cuts on a push stroke, Japanese saw cuts on a pull stroke. When an American cracks up, he opens up the window and shoots up a bunch of strangers. When a Japanese cracks up, he closes the window and kills himself. Everything is in reverse.”
Sketchy businessman ‘Tanner’ (Brian Keith) messes up a gun deal with a Japanese Yakuza bigwig, who holds Tanner’s daughter for ransom. Old Army buddy ‘Harry Kilmer’ (Mitchum) is talked into going back to Japan (the two were Marine M.P. buddies during the postwar Occupation) and squaring things, as Kilmer has some longtime connections in Tokyo, chiefly ‘Eiko’ (Keiko Kishi), a former flame Harry had rescued from black market trouble. Their past life, and now the volatile present, are complicated in the form of her ‘brother’ (Takakura), once a Yakuza soldier, now a kendo teacher. Secrets are uncovered, but the toll of giri—a lifelong obligation that traditionally can never be repaid—is a cost paid in sacrifice.
Yakuza films were a quite popular genre in Japan, the real world crime syndicates stories made for cinematic treatment and popular appeal as the gangs and resultant films were essentially a modern evolution of samurai lore (code of bushido and all: hot tea and sharp blades, solemnity before slaughter). The script had started a bidding war that ended with a $300,000 sale, a high for the day, and director Pollack was fresh off three hits—They Shoot Horses Don’t They?, Jeremiah Johnson and The Way We Were. $5,000,000 went into production, with location filming in Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto. The movie-makers thought they had the makings of a crossover hit, yet critical reaction was ‘meh’ and the film failed to find crowds.
Deliberately paced, it takes a while to get going, but the actors are good and the action, when it comes, is exciting. Mitchum at 56 looks Jack D. & Chesterfield-weathered by life but still tight-wired for a rumble. Flanked by The Friends Of Eddie Coyle and Farewell, My Lovely, this was one of his better late-career efforts: he pretty much phoned it in afterwards. A brooding Takakura (over 200 credits) contrasts with more enlivened work from likable supporting players Richard Jordan and Cristina Kokubo.
On one hand, it holds you, thanks to the offbeat (to non-Japanese) milieu, the mostly compelling cast and the explosive bursts of vivid action. Counter-balance take is the feeling— or lack of it—generated by the anchor-weight solemnity of the honor & ritual jazz. When you strip away the cosmetic applique (here it’s excessive politeness, full-body tattoos and really cool swords) and the pedantic rules, it’s just a different strain of the worldwide habit men have spent centuries polishing: cover your crimes with layers of B.S. Yakuza, Cosa Nostra, Skull & Bones, gang-bangers, religious charlatans/maniacs, politicians/pedophiles—the meretricious excuses for looting are all the same, only the clothes and locales are different. Wait, is that a koi-head in my futon?
With Herb Edelman (odd casting that feels off), the always dependable James Shigeta, Eiji Okada, and resolute displays of Yubitsume, the delicate practice of slicing off one of your fingers by way of an apology. Smoky music score is by Dave Grusin. 112 minutes.
* Estimates of Yakuza numbers in the 1960s indicate they may have boasted 184,000 rank and file. Speaking of honor, Paul Schrader took full script credit from his brother, then pillaged him later for Mishima: A Life In Four Chapters. They never spoke again. As for talking, Mitchum, never shy about saying (or not saying) whatever the hell he felt like, started the production visit off with a Tokyo press conference, nonchalantly offering “Remember Pearl Harbor.”
Crime paid in 1974—The Godfather II, Chinatown, Thunderbolt And Lightfoot, Death Wish, The Sugarland Express, The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three, Mr. Majestyk, Murder On The Orient Express, The Odessa File, Macon County Line, Freebie And The Bean and Foxy Brown. Somehow this interesting, unusual and ultimately butt-kicking entry could not find a seat at the table. Time heals—unless you’re in a jam with the Yakuza.