The Yakuza: A great Robert Mitchum performance anchors this fascinating genre mashup from director Sydney Pollack

Sydney Pollack’s 1974 film, The Yakuza, is a strange mashup of Neo-Noir, Gangster-drama, Samurai film, Yakuza-eiga , martial arts film and cross cultural Romance. This mixture is not always successful, but still makes for fascinating viewing

“When an American cracks up, he opens a window and shoots up a bunch of strangers, he shoots out – When a Japanese cracks up, he closes the window and cuts inward. Everything’s the reverse, isn’t it? When an American has an orgasm he says “I’m coming.” When a Japanese has an orgasm, he says, “I’m going.””

This is how the character Dusty(Richard Jordan) describes the difference between the Americans and Japanese. Sydney Pollack’s 1974 film, The Yakuza, is mainly about these cultural differences that result in conflict; it’s also about relationships of love and brotherhood that transcend these differences. The film could be considered a broad allegory on the American – Japanese relationship in the post World War II scenario, when the two countries became allies and business partners, though some of the hostilities and uneasiness from the war (and from the cultural differences)  remained. The film was the brainchild of writers Paul Schrader and (his brother) Leonard. Schrader. They described the film as  a cross between two genres: the American private detective film and the Japanese yakuza-eiga, which was  the contemporary Japanese gangster film, a sort of  The Godfather meets Bruce Lee.

Director Sydney Pollack has had one of the most illustrious careers  as a mainstream Hollywood filmmaker. In a career spanning more than 40 years, as director and producer (and occasional actor), he has made some of the most sophisticated and mature mainstream commercial films that cuts across many film genres. By his own admission, Pollock is not a visual stylist. He concentrates on telling his stories straight; focusing  on a tight script and extracting great performances from the cast. He is not a ‘New Hollywood’ director in the mold of a Coppola, Scorsese or Friedkin nor was he exactly the tradition studio film maker like John Ford or Howard Hawks. He fell somewhere in the middle. The Yakuza, therefore, is an  oddball venture in his career. It’s a very stylized, very strange mix of multiple genres and cultures: something that he had never attempted before and he would never attempt again. It’s also the first and last time he would work with the legendary star Robert Mitchum (the tough guy actor of Film Noirs and westerns). The film comes smack in the middle of Pollack’s two wildly popular hits with his favorite star Robert Redford: The way we were(1973), a romantic melodrama, and Three Days of Condor(1975), A spy thriller; both well defined film genres. On the other hand, the writers behind the film: The Schrader brothers and Robert Towne are the leading lights of new Hollywood. Towne was involved in Bonnie and Clyde and Shampoo and would write the definitive Neo-noir Chinatown (released in the same year as The Yakuza). For Paul Schrader, this was his big break and he would go on to write the iconic Taxi Driver in 1976. So it was an odd marriage of the director and the writers and it is reflected in the movie. On one hand, it has the feel of a bloody, violent crime drama that Schrader is identified with, on the other hand, it has an elegiac, romantic quality that Pollack brings to his movies.

The opening scene of The Yakuza is very similar to Francis Coppola’s  The Godfather(1972), where we get a lengthy tableau, with a member of the Yakuza gang introducing himself by taking a ceremonial body posture. Post this Godfather style opening, we get a title sequence filled with images of Yakuza body tattoos. This is also the first time we get to hear David Grusin’s funky, eclectic score . Its a mixture of western and Oriental, and sounds nothing like any other movie score. It helps enormously in setting the tone and mood of this film. Robert Mitchum plays the film’s Protagonist, Harry Kilmer. It is very much in the mold of the  private eye characters that he had essayed in his classic  Film Noirs; cynical, world weary, and (soon to be) double-crossed. Kilmer is sucked back into his own past, and in this case, into an altogether  different culture with which he has unsuccessfully grappled before. There is also the case of a broken love affair (from his past) that comes back to haunt him, and so does an old friend. In that regard, the Kilmer is very similar to the iconic character Mitchum played in  Out of The Past(1947). And as in that film, here too, he’s forced to go on an errand for an old friendKilmer has to return to Japan to rescue the daughter of his friend, Tanner(Brian Keith); she has been kidnapped by The Yakuza boss Tono, with whom Tanner has some business dealings. Kilmer is accompanied by Tanner’s hired hand, Dusty, whom Kilmer knew as a kid.

Once Kilmer and Dusty reaches Japan, the style of the film, which until now was very much American, grows progressively Japanese. We are first introduced to Kilmer’s old love Eiko and then to her estranged brother Ken(Ken Takakura), who owes an old debt to Kilmer for protecting his sister and child during the time of American occupation. Kilmer requests Ken’s help in rescuing the girl, and due to Ken’s obligation he accepts, thereby breaking his code of non interference in Yakuza affairs. Yakuza does not take kindly to this betrayal, and hence, Death Contracts are issued on both Ken and Kilmer.  From then on its a bloody battle, with Kilmer and Ken on one side and The Yakuza on the other with shifting loyalties on both sides, in which a lot of innocents like Dusty and Hanoke (Eiko’s daughter) are killed.

The film is primarily concerned with Japanese codes of loyalty, debt , forgiveness,  honor and sacrifice. Kilmer and Ken are representatives of the American and Japanese warrior classes. They’re also an obsolete breed, The ancient race called ‘Man’ – as Charles Bronson put in the classic western Once upon a time in the West; and The Yakuza has a lot of ‘Western’ genre influences in it as well. The protagonists in the film live and die by the philosophy “A man doesn’t forget. A man pays his debts.” Eiko, Ken’s sister (who is later revealed to be his wife) represents Japan. Kilmer protected Eiko during the American occupation . He fell in love with her and they lived together. Ken meanwhile was living in  some caves in Philippines, as a defeated imperial soldier: a nod to the primitive state Japan found itself in  after losing the war and the atomic bombing. It’s also a nod to the kind of man he is; a  man from another time and place. When Ken finally returned in 1951, he is shocked by the fact that Eiko has made him eternally indebted to the enemy. He cuts of all connection with Eiko and family and disappears into the Yakuza underworld. Kilmer urges Eiko to marry him , but she refuses, thus separating herself from both Ken and Kilmer. A heartbroken Kilmer leaves Japan ,but before he left, he borrowed some money from his friend (and fellow marine) Tanner and opened a Bar for Eiko which she named Kilmer House and which she is still operating. This part works as a kind of  metaphor for the resurgence of Japan; Japan became an economic superpower by cutting itself away from its feudal past and taking United States’ economic support. The influence of U.S. money and culture also brings in modernization that changes the face of Japan completely. When Kilmer returns after many years, he has trouble recognizing  the Japan he finds himself in. The social structure of Japan has in fact been severely disrupted in recent years. Westernization and  the rapid rise of Japanese capitalism has eroded the traditional Japanese virtues. The same virtues that survive the war and the Occupation, but is fighting to survive in a modern-age. driven by purely business interests.

Opposed to Kilmer and Ken are the figures of Tanner and Tono, both modern men; the crooked Businessmen who operate without any code, and doesn’t think twice before betraying their friends or family for their business interests. Tono and Tanner  are both engaged in seedy business involving weapons and it goes wrong after Tanner becomes bankrupt. Tanner then uses Kilmer as a pawn in his dirty business. Kilmer accepts to help his friend and Ken agree to help Kilmer because of the men they are. This idea of a loyalty between two men that refuses to die, despite its unpleasant ramifications, whether its between  Kilmer and Ken ,between Ken and Goro (his elder brother), or even between Kilmer and Tanner, is at the core of the movie. Once Kilmer has done his duty, Tanner sets up a hit on him, as he doesn’t want Kilmer to disturb his business empire. As a warrior, that’s where Kilmer’s usefulness ends and he has no place in the modern world of Business and secret deals. The same is the case with Ken as well. So Kilmer and Ken join hands to stop their ‘race’, their ‘brotherhood’ from becoming extinct; this they hold above the concepts of nationality and culture. Both of them are driven to kill their own. Kilmer kills Tanner and Ken kills Tono. Ken also ends up killing Goro’s son in self defense, thus becoming obligated to Goro . And in the big reveal, Kilmer realizes that he is indebted to Ken as well. on account of Eiko being Ken’s wife and how his repeated interference in their lives has lead to much pain and tragedy for them. In a final act of yubitsume (ceremonial act of cutting of the little finger as apology ), from both Ken and Kilmer, their debts and obligations to each other (and their families) are paid in full. 

Ken Takakura  gives a superb performance as Ken and the rest of the supporting cast, which includes such great actors as Brian Keith and Richard Jordan, does well too but, the film truly belongs to Robert Mitchum, who gives one of his career-best performances as Harry Kilmer. As mentioned already, its an updated version of the tough Noir heroes he used to play in the 40’s and 50’s. He trades his suit, tie and hat for turtle necks and shaggy hair and cuts quite an imposing figure. His performance is a combination of toughness, tenderness, weariness and cynicism.  Only he can inhabit such a strange, violent film with such subtlety and silence and  he is agile enough to carry off the action scenes. He was 56 at the time when the film was made and those baggy eyes and wrinkles gives a melancholic touch to his performance, even though the character is far from tragic. He deftly anchors the film that’s being pulled in several directions. His reunion with Eiko; the scene were he realizes the truth about Eiko being Ken’s wife; and the final scene where he commits yubitsume and acknowledges Ken for the friend that he is, are some of the best acting moments of his career .

Though an odd film in his filmography, the film still exhibit some of the pet themes of Pollack’s pictures. Perhaps that’s reason why he had Schraders’ script rewritten by Towne; to bring in that person connection to the material. The relationship between Kilmer and Eiko is very similar to the ones between Robert Redford and Barbra Streisand  in  The Way We Were(1973) and between Redford and Meryl Streep in Out Of Africa(1985).  Then there is his pet theme of survival: where the protagonist struggles to survive in surroundings which are alien and which he has trouble fully  understanding, like in Jeremiah Jonson or Three Days of Condor. But despite Pollack’s best efforts, The Yakuza flopped badly at the box office. Over the years, like many of these oddball films of the 1970s, it has gained a cult following. Pollack was really proud of the film, mainly because he had to do a lot of the action choreography himself. The primary problem with the film is that it has lot of exposition but, Pollack finds unique ways to make it work by using voice overs over montages and scenes depicting  travel. The scene where Kilmer goes to meet Eiko after his return and we hear their back story narrated in the background makes for a very moving stylistic choice. And for someone who is not much of a visual innovator, the film is really beautiful to look at, with all that mixture of color and architecture. Pollack conceives some superb scenes, like the assassination attempt on Kilmer in a Japanese bath, or the action sequences involving guns and swords, which are all well choreographed. Pollack is called upon to do something nearly impossible here, that’s the  blending of the cultures (and film cultures) of East and West in a formal gangster film that bases its structure around the traditional samurai film with a cross cultural romance at its center. After all, this is the kind of film where people are running around with swords, while travelling in  bullet trains or staying in skyscrapers, and set in a world where merely killing your enemy isn’t enough, you have to kill him with the right weapon in a right way. It’s one hell of a job to make it look convincing. Pollack succeeds more than he fails. and even at times when he fails, he ensures that the film remains interesting for the viewer.


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