The Yakuza (1974)

Dir. Sydney Pollack. Starring Robert Mitchum, Ken Takakura, Keiko Kishi

Remember when you were in college and you had that one friend who studied abroad in London for a semester, and when he came back he called it “football” and not “soccer” because he had been enlightened by three months there? The Yakuza is the movie equivalent of that naive and adoring culture shock, fawning about Japanese culture (or at least a subculture which has far-off historical roots) and how different it is than the American way of life. For Tanner (Brian Keith), something of a gangster in his own country but really little more than a huckster without the money or resources to play the game, obligations can be pretended. He can fake his way through negotiations over a deal for guns with notorious Japanese crime bigwig Tono (Eiji Okada) without feeling any kind of spiritual remorse. He’s almost alone among characters in this movie in feeling so carefree about his word. For the Japanese characters, their word is their bond, their obligations a holy duty; for Kilmer (Mitchum), who was an MP in Tokyo after World War II and who played house with a Japanese woman, Eiko (Kishi), giri is not just a word in a foreign language with arcane connotations. He understands it, at least as much as the Schrader brothers understood it anyway. It makes him a “strange stranger,” in the words of one character, someone who is alien enough to the yakuza to be able to bring literal guns to a literal sword fight, but at the same time who feels some penumbra of giri hanging over him when it comes to what he owes Ken. The Yakuza never quite manages to overcome whatever the Japanese version of the Noble Savage is, but it’s a movie which also does something that must have been exceedingly rare in American movies back then, and which is still exceedingly rare now. Robert Mitchum is the star, and Harry Kilmer is the protagonist, but the movie isn’t really about him. It’s about Ken (Takakura), who went to war and came home to a Japan which was fundamentally strange to him, who lives by an outdated code; everyone respects the fidelity, but no one is lining up to become his disciple, either. The movie rises and falls on that character, and on the way that his silence and mystery are cracked open.

When Harry and Ken do storm the castle, the focus is emphatically not on Harry, who does the dirty work of cleaning out the other rooms in the house like Yanks in the Pacifics cleared out foxholes and pillboxes. It’s on Ken, who stands alone with his katana while some incredible number of men, likewise armed, wait to see what he’ll do and probe for weakness. Clearly it’s much more exciting to watch a man fight with a sword than it is to watch a man blow holes in walls with a shotgun (though as I write that, I am questioning myself a little), but it’s also because what Ken is struggling through is simply more interesting than what Harry is doing. The Yakuza gets that, and for all of its yearning for a culture it compresses into two hours, it’s also trying to suggest that just because Ken and his values are “foreign” does not rob them of meaning or purpose. After Ken and Harry survive the fight, both of them complete a gesture of remorse. For Ken, the gesture is directed towards his brother, Goro (James Shigeta), who knew in advance that those two were intending to kill Tono. Goro asked Ken to spare, even protect, a son who is little more than a yakuza thug, and Ken promised to do so. When the son does appear, katana in hand, he attacks Ken, and Ken dispatches him even more easily than he did the other fighters; for breaking his promise to Goro, Ken intended to commit suicide in front of him, but after Goro rejects that action categorically, Ken does something else. He cuts off his little finger and gives it to Goro, a statement which means more or less what we’d expect it to mean. For Harry, the gesture is for Ken, and he does it while Ken is out of the room fixing tea. For the wrong I’ve done you in the past and present, Harry says, I hope you’ll accept this. Ken knows with the slightly bloody handkerchief means; he touches it to his forehead and forgives Harry. The fact that Harry cuts off his finger is a statement of the movie’s values. He acclimates to Ken in the last moments, and not the other way around. It is the difference between tolerance and openness, and the movie chooses the latter when a similar movie might simply have included Harry’s deep bow to Ken from his plane.

Every movie villain gets a good origin story, and it’s not hard to find some record of the way Paul Schrader sold his soul and sold out his brother Leonard in reference to the way this picture eventually came about. (Long story short, it was the first time that Paul and Leonard worked on something together, sold it for real money, and Paul ensured that he got a bigger cut. It wasn’t the last, either. In this instance it meant more money for Paul, but also a screenwriting credit where Leonard only got a story credit.) Curiously, the figure behind the camera who this movie seems to belong to most is not either Schrader or even Sydney Pollack, whose direction of this movie is mostly silky. (There’s a scene in the first fifteen minutes or so where there’s a dissolve from one character in his home to Mitchum, who is walking the streets of Tokyo looking a little sad and breathless, and then another dissolve into the same room where his story is being told. It’s classic moviemaking, and it is done beautifully at that.) It’s Robert Towne, whose fingerprints are all over the structure of the movie. That interplay between “Boy, everyone’s talking a lot” and “Wow, that was a heck of a punchy line to end the scene with” is here. There is a languorous quality to everyone getting to Japan, getting settled in, learning about what everyone’s been doing in the intervening three decades or so. There is a voiceover narration via Oliver (Herb Edelman) which recounts the long, sad story by which Harry rescued Eiko and her daughter, tried to marry her, couldn’t, and then ultimately gave her back to Ken; it goes on a full minute longer than I would have guessed it would have. It’s got that Towne sense of atmosphere first, but also the feeling that everything can and should be explained. The family identity twist at the end, though I couldn’t say whose idea it was, is a fairly Chinatown idea. Harry learns late in the game that Ken is not Eiko’s brother, but her husband, and Eiko’s daughter, who is killed in a firefight at Oliver’s home, is his daughter. More likely that Towne did the polish rather than the ideas, but the reveal and the timing thereof are just similar to what we discover about the Cross family in Chinatown.

The Yakuza is not typically remembered as a New Hollywood classic, although a bunch of the elements are there; perhaps Pollack is too studio, or the idea in the movie too old-fashioned in itself. I think another reason it does not get easily lumped into that group is because it looks very ’70s in a way that I think is probably a little stereotypical now, although I honestly can’t get enough of it. ’70s grime, like we get in The French Connection, is still hot; there’s still a little condescension in the air about ’70s panache, which I think mostly exists to be overstated by people trying to win Emmy Awards for costume design. This is the real deal in The Yakuza, and I can’t get over how splendid so much of the production design is. There’s a ten-second shot in a conference center where we see Goro for the first time. He’s up in a balcony, and we can see a great room below with that burnt orange carpet that screams ’70s chic. The rooms in this movie are absolutely, strikingly ’70s, so colorful that they could have shot this in the dark and we’d still get the glowing violet of a room where Tanner, Harry, and Ken debrief after the latter two had freed his daughter. In the scene where a hitman sent by Tanner to off Harry tries to kill him in an amphibious assault at a spa, Harry and Dusty (Richard Jordan) are sitting in a bright blue pool with glowing red lights behind them. The place is as luminous and neon as the streets of Tokyo itself, except the spa has more koi swimming around to witness the action. Even the opening credits of this movie are beautiful in their haziness, somewhere between Bond and pure sleaze fogged up by steam and cigarette smoke.

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