The Yakuza is the first screen credit for brothers Paul and Leonard Schrader. In 1972 Leonard Schrader was sitting out the draft in Kyoto, where he developed an interest in the Yakuza, soaking up Japanese gangster films and befriending some Yakuza soldiers. Leonard brought the story to his younger brother Paul and by the new year a screenplay had been completed. The story concerns Harry Kilmer (Robert Mitchum), a retired detective sent to Tokyo to retrieve the daughter of an American businessman, kidnapped by a yakuza gang in lieu of a shipment of lost guns. Kilmer a former MP who was stationed in Japan during the American occupation enlists the help of an estranged friend, Ken Tanaka (Ken Takakura) to infiltrate the gangs but a straight-forward rescue mission inadvertently upsets the delicate balance of power within the Tokyo underworld...
Excited by the potential of an East meets West thriller, Warners picked up the Scraders' screenplay for $325,000, a staggering sum for the day, and immediately offered the film to Lee Marvin with Robert Aldrich in mind for directing duties. Marvin passed on the screenplay, and was next offered to Robert Mitchum who had Aldrich replaced by Sydney Pollack, a film maker with no apparent affinity for violent gangster films. With Pollack on board the Schraders' screenplay was revised and streamlined by Robert Towne (who shares a screenplay credit with Paul Schrader on the finished film). Hardly a promising turn of events for the film but The Yakuza confounds expectations. A full-blooded, two-fisted violent thriller, The Yakuza expertly steers a course between American and Japanese film traditions - the first half of the film is leisurely paced, Schrader's screenplay is dense, wordy and demands attention with its complex exposition, double-crossings and arcane Japanese rituals, but gradually the film uncoils itself as all the elements of the plot line up into place for the rousing final act of the film. Pollack handles the film's bursts of action with surprising skill and displays a keen eye for cultural detail - samurai swords, Yakuza tattoos and the ritual of Yubitsume - the cutting off of the tip of the left hand little finger as an apology.
Robert Mitchum sat out much of the 60's hidden away in a string of forgettable pictures but the 70's saw the actor on much better form with the likes of Ryan's Daughter, The Friends of Eddie Coyle and Farewell My Lovely. He's particularly fine in The Yakuza, Mitchum's subtlety as an actor perfectly in tune with the sad-eyed, introspective Harry Kilmer. Holding his own against Mitchum is Bullet Train's Ken Takakura (later seen in Ridley Scott's comparable East/West thriller Black Rain) commanding the screen with his rigid and emotionless Ken Tanaka (at one point his character is called "the man who never smiles"), and there's excellent support from Keiko Kishi (who played the Snow Maiden in Kwaidan) and James Shigeta (best known as the ill-fated Nakatomi boss Joseph Takagi in Die Hard). Richard Jorden's character Dusty, Kilmer's young sidekick has been criticised for being superfluous to the film but his character, a stranger to Japan translates for the audience much of peculiarities and contractions of the Japanese and helps the film remain coherent.
Warner's 2007 DVD of The Yakuza is one of the label's harder to find titles these days, but luckily the film was bundled in with the 6-disc Robert Mitchum: The Signature Collection collection, which is still in print. The 2.35 transfer is generally excellent, with vibrant colors and only minimal wear on the print. The audio is fine too and dialogue is intelligible, vital for this particular film. Sydney Pollack is on hand for a director's commentary, and the disc is rounded off with one of Warner's vintage on-set promotional films. For readers in the UK and Ireland, the film is regularly screened (in 2.35 no less) on TCM. Highly recommended.