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The Yakuza

by Glenn Erickson Jan 24, 2017

 

The Yakuza
Blu-ray
Warner Archive Collection
1975 / Color / 2:40 widescreen / 112 & 123 min. / Street Date February 14, 2017 / available through the WBshop / 21.99
Starring Robert Mitchum, Takakura Ken, Brian Keith, Eiji Okada, Richard Jordan, Keiko Kishi, James Shigeta, Herb Edelman.
Cinematography: Kozo Okazaki, Duke Callaghan
Production Design: Stephen Grimes
Art Direction: Yoshiyuki Ishida
Film Editor: Don Guidice, Thomas Stanford
Original Music: Dave Grusin
Written by: Leonard Schrader, Paul Schrader, Robert Towne
Produced by: Michael Hamilburg, Sydney Pollack, Koji Shundo
Directed by
Sydney Pollack

 

The Warner Archive Collection is on a roll with a 2017 schedule that has so far released one much-desired library Blu-ray per week. Coming shortly are Vincente Minnelli’s Bells are Ringing, Billy Wilder’s Love in the Afternoon, Ken Russell’s The Boy Friend, and Val Guest’s When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth, and that only takes us through February. First up is a piercing action drama from 1975.

There are favorite movies around Savant central, and Sidney Pollack’s The Yakuza is one of the most admired. I passed it over in 1975, somehow assuming that it was a loser; when I finally saw it years later on a miserable pan-scanned VHS I was blown away. Action movies of the 1970s rarely presented such engrossing characters. Leonard and Paul Schrader’s multigenerational story was something that Edna Ferber could have written, were she into exotic Japanese criminals. The violence is tied to a number of fascinating themes – the personal price of the Occupation period, the contrast of criminals from two cultures, and relationships based on solemn oaths that mandate cruel violence.

Hip film critics of the day welcomed The Yakuza as one of the best of the film school generation’s unofficial remakes of The Searchers. In the context of the Japanese yakuza genre, then known in the States to only a few foreign film aficionados, we see the familiar tale of old warriors upholding twisted codes of behavior, only to doom the next generation. A genre hybrid of morose heroes and sudden violence, Schrader’s film beautifully establishes the presence of an American-style gangster in a milieu of Ginza Pachinko parlors.

 

I recognize that more than a few viewers find the film slow and solemn, but I don’t think the show is at all pretentious. The trappings of the criminal yakuza culture aren’t there just for window dressing. We’re drawn into a different world where people of honor stand behind their words, and where the empty words ‘I take full responsibility’ must be backed up with ritualized action.

It was also amazing in 1975 to see top-quality Japanese sword fighting action, perhaps for the first time in a mainstream American movie. In terms of dynamics and violence, Japanese genre pictures had been way ahead of us for years. The Yakuza was filmed with a Japanese crew through the Toei Company. Everything we see has precision, authenticity and a razor-sharp edge. U.S. Japanese co-productions were often disastrous, but we’re told that Pollack and his Japanese associates got on well.

Middle-aged Malibu resident Harry Kilmer (Mitchum) thinks that his lawless days in the MacArthur Occupation are all in the past, until his old Army pal George Tanner (Brian Keith) begs for his help. Tanner still does business with the yakuza racketeers. He needs Kilmer because a yakuza boss named Toshiro Tono (Eiji Okada) has kidnapped his daughter. Accompanied by callow Boston punk Dusty (Richard Jordan), Kilmer contacts a curious ally from the old days, Tanaka Ken (Takakura Ken), a peerless swordsman who has left the yakuza to teach Kendo. Ken agrees to help, stating that ‘he has an obligation to Kilmer he can never repay.’ Kilmer tries to resolve his long-dormant relationship with Ken’s sister Eiko (Keiko Kishi) but cannot get straight answers from her. Kilmer saved Eiko’s life during the occupation and became her lover, but when her brother returned from combat several years after the end of the war she ended the romance without explanation. Meanwhile, Dusty is falling in love with Eiko’s daughter Hanako, and is likewise finding himself fascinated with the contradictory Japanese culture.

 

The Yakuza is a real challenge — the filmmakers must cover a lot of foreign cultural detail, if the film audience is to understand anything that is going on. The yakuza film genre had been around for decades, and had developed into a heavily ritualized form. Film Comment magazine explained that the standard yakuza film followed a rigid structure, with a specific number of scenes presented in a specific order. The Schraders play with the genre elements while retaining a respect for the form. Some of the cultural mismatches include funny stuff like a cabaret singer trying his hand at ‘My Dawlin’ Crementine’. Richard Jordan’s hood, seeing the Japanese culture for the first time, is seduced just as Harry had been twenty years before. Through him we’re introduced to curious psychological inversions of American ideas. The ascetic Tanaka Ken has teamed up with Kilmer out of a Zen-like obedience to an abstract concept called Giri, a responsibility he calls ‘the burden hardest to bear.’ Ken’s personal Giri turns out to be a jaw-dropping revelation that turns everyone’s life upside down.

The infrequent violence is so strongly anticipated that it makes a terrific impact. Ken initially comes along just for backup on the kidnap recovery of Tanner’s daughter. But when he’s forced to use a sword, he runs afoul of the yakuza code, which makes him a target for bounty hunters and assassins. Harry Kilmer goes to Ken’s brother Goro (James Shigeta) for help. Harry still can’t figure out what the big rupture was between himself and Eiko, and how Ken figures in. But Goro assures the American that Ken is now in dire need of his help, although Ken is unlikely to acknowledge it.

All this should resonate with fans of films about ‘male codes of behavior, from John Ford to Howard Hawks to Sam Peckinpah. When other values prove lacking, a precious, elusive concept of honor becomes a primary life goal. Harry has discovered his own giri, a responsibility more important than life.

 

Action fans ought to appreciate the superb, no- BS violence in The Yakuza. The second major action scene is a dazzlingly chaotic skirmish with knives and guns in the crowded apartment of college professor Oliver Wheat (Herbert Edelman). I remember one English film critic expressing delight at the fact that Ken briefly wields a bicycle as a defensive weapon against a katana sword. Other confrontations, especially when Harry acts alone, are clean, brutal ambushes. But for the finale Pollack and Ken Takakura deliver a full-on mass battle, followed by a formal duel between Ken and an equally skilled opponent. Kilmer is armed with a .45 and a shotgun, but knows to stay out of it.

The Yakuza isn’t the first movie to mix American and Japanese gangsters. Its central premise betters Sam Fuller’s House of Bamboo. That exciting but rather nonsensical crime saga is about a criminal band of ex-Army GI’s operating in downtown Tokyo. Not only would the Americans stick out like sore thumbs, they wouldn’t last a week against the highly developed postwar yakuza.

The Americans George Tanner and Harry Kilmer are credible because they began as black marketers raiding U.S. Army stores — rather like Harry Lime in The Third Man but minus the deadly penicillin. The Schraders do introduce one or two far-fetched notions, such as the meek Oliver Wheat just happening to maintain a convenient collection of outrageously illegal firearms in his little Tokyo apartment. There could be gross exaggerations elsewhere, and this reviewer would surely never know. I’ve read, however, that Japanese critics gave The Yakuza their seal of approval for factual plausibility. Although Harry learned the language and became an expert on the local crime scene, even he had to call it quits. Now, twenty years later, he returns to discover a terrible secret about the love of his life.

 

This film clearly meant a lot to Robert Mitchum, as he shows more emotion than in any other picture — Harry Kilmer is far more demonstrative than Mitchum’s meek schoolteacher in Ryan’s Daughter, especially in one scene in which he breaks down trying to express his sincerity. Ken Takakura is tagged everywhere as the Japanese Steve McQueen, a somewhat limiting description — his character is as morally conflicted as Harry’s, except that his code of conduct doesn’t allow him to share his personal issues with others. Ken is more like Montgomery Clift in I Confess, if a priest could also be a deadly martial artist.

Keiko Kishi’s performance becomes richer on a second viewing, when we know more of what she’s hiding. She’s as endearing here as she was frightening as the snow demon ‘Yuki-onna’ in the creepy 1964 horror epic Kwaidan. Brian Keith is appropriately gruff and devious as Tanner, an SOB wholly devoid of the principles of honor Harry wants to reclaim. Richard Jordan carries the ‘Martin Pauley’ character, and happily doesn’t have to be portrayed as a goofus. Dusty watches Keiko’s daughter Hanako (American actress Christina Kokubo) serve tea, and is charmed to the bone. It’s as if he never experienced a gentle moment back home in the States. One of the most promising male stars of the 1970s, Jordan had just played with Mitchum in the superior crime story The Friends of Eddie Coyle. Was he sidetracked into dead-end movies (Logan’s Run, Raise the Titanic) that wasted his potential?

 

I’ve read reviews unimpressed by the scenes centered on the Yakuza ritual of finger cutting. By now most of us have heard of this gruesome act of ‘principled’ self-mutilation, where an underling slices off part of his little finger to atone for as misdeed, or prove one’s sincerity to a friend one has wronged. I find this part of the movie moving and profound. Not too many action pictures embody a code of personal responsibility, even one as rigid as this. What’s great about The Yakuza is the depth of feeling in the final settling of accounts, historical and personal. The story concludes on a terribly painful note. As with John Ford’s The Searchers and Jacques Demy’s Lola, the new generation may be pulled into the same tragic patterns that left their elders emotionally crippled. Yet the finale seems emotionally satisfying, correct. The Yakuza is very highly recommended for viewers looking for something altogether different.


The Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray of The Yakuza finally has a good look on home video — I think that earlier SD encodings had difficulty with its slightly soft, filtered images. Colors are excellent, as are facial tones. The ‘R’ rating must be for violence (crimson blood!) in a film where hardly anybody swears. Dave Grusin’s music has sentimental strings but also the flavor of a cross-cultural lounge-bar; it only becomes too emotionally obvious at the end. Thankfully, the score doesn’t intrude on the film’s already riveting dialogue confrontations.

 

Director Sidney Pollack (who passed away in 2008) shows how much he cares about his picture in his detailed and candid audio commentary. He talks about the difficulty of setting up the project and how much it meant to him – as he had just come from The Way We Were, I’m guessing that he was anxious to again work with meaningful characters and honest emotions. Pollack talks about the drawn-out negotiations with the Japanese, and the odd situation of directing through interpreters. His descriptions of working on the set are fascinating. American actor James Shigeta had to work on his accent to come off as a native Japanese. A lengthy making-of featurette is better than promo fluff, and goes fairly deep into the process of an American director working with a Japanese crew.

What we don’t see are examples of The Yakuza’s ad campaign, which relied on terrible artwork and weak graphics of flowers and swords, backed with dumb tag lines like, “A man never forgets. A man pays his debts,” and the misleading “100 years ago they were called Samurai.” What this movie needed was a promo TV special to introduce America to the world of samurai and yakuza movies. Toei could have provided sensational film clips to educate the public about odd things like formal yakuza greetings. It could tout the movie as something different than ‘The Godfather; a narration thread could contrast the exotic thrills of The Yakuza with our own familiar gangster iconography.

 

I give the ad campaign a hard time, but The Yakuza really failed because American audiences that say they want new thrills, predictably reject things that are really new. Just the same, five years later American TV audiences were fascinated by a TV miniseries of Shogun, which in its first broadcast played entire chapters with un-subtitled Japanese dialogue, daring the viewer to figure out what was going on.

I believe it was The Monthly Film Bulletin where I read that there was a version of The Yakuza several minutes longer. A longer Japanese version is listed at the (incredibly reliable!) IMDB. It would be interesting to find out if it’s an entirely different Toei cut for Japanese release, or if Warners dropped a few scenes for our domestic version. This reviewer would welcome more of The Yakuza any time, even if it’s eleven minutes of Keiko Kishi arranging flowers.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Yakuza Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Sidney Pollack commentary, making-of featurette Promises to Keep.
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: January 23, 2017
(5317yaku)

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for DVD Savant.