Saturday, 20 October 2012

The Yakuza

In his 1998 study of rebel Hollywood, Easy Riders Raging Bulls, author Peter Biskind makes just three cursory mentions of Sydney Pollack. Hardly surprising considering Pollack epitomised the Hollywood establishment, his 70's work managed to straight-jacket the likes of Robert Redford and Al Pacino into forgettable star-vehicles like The Way We Were and Bobby Deerfield. Following Tootsie and Out of Africa, Pollack's career settled into an unbroken run of mainstream mediocrity. It would, however, be a mistake to dismiss Pollack's filmography completely. In the first decade of his feature film career, Pollack made some interesting and worthwhile films - the eccentric WWII film Castle Keep from 1969, the quiet desolate western Jeremiah Johnson from 1972, and from 1974, The Yakuza, arguably Sydney Pollack's finest work.

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.


  1. Great to have you back Wes, and with a bang too. I love The Yakuza, it's one of my favourite Mitchum films, probably second only to Eddie Coyle.

    What made you choose to write about it?

  2. Hey, Wes. One I've never seen but often read about. It has such a fascinating background with the Schrader connection, and he talks about the film in the book 'Schrader on Schrader' as his stepping stone from his study of Transcendental Style in Film to Taxi Driver. You are right about Pollack, he did some really interesting films early in his career. I loved They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (a novel Tod Browning had wanted to film way back in the 1930s).

  3. Thanks for the comments guys, always great...

    Mart, this is one of those films that I've bumped into quite regularly over the years without ever actually taking the time to sit down and watch it so I had to remedy that. Also, I've become interested in the work of Paul Schrader again, and I'm planning to revisit a number of his films in the next few weeks, so The Yakuza seemed a good starting point...

    Jon, I keep on missing They Shoot Horses, Dont They ? and I wanted to see this movie for the longest time because I love Jane Fonda. I had no idea about Browning wanting to do it, but it makes sense considering what a bizarre story Horace McCoy's book was based around. Schrader's screenplay for The Yakuza (and one must credit Robert Towne here as well) is quite an impressive piece of writing, that a coherent movie was fashioned from it. I've seen plenty of Japanese Yakuza films and most I find are maddeningly difficult to follow. The Yakuza and Taxi Driver seem poles apart plot wise but both films feature at their heart doomed loners, which as I understand it came very much from Schrader's own lifestyle of alienation in the early 70's. Fascinating to think how Close Encounters of the Third Kind would have turned out if Spielberg had filmed Schrader's screenplay...