Yakuza, The (1975)
Release Date: March 19th, 1975 MPAA Rating: R
Director: Sydney Pollack Actors: Robert Mitchum, Takakura Ken, Brian Keith, Herb Edelman, Richard Jordan, Kishi Keiko, James Shigeta, Christina Kokubo, Lee Chirillo
brooding, methodically paced exploration of the honor and integrity of the Japanese gangster, Sydney Pollack’s “The Yakuza” is an overlooked homage to the volatile genre that became so popular in the 1970s. With the hard-boiled persona of Robert Mitchum and the coolly calm Takakura Ken (an icon of Yakuza films in his own right and a rare casting choice for a then-conservative industry), Pollack’s film adroitly captures the look and mood of the Japanese mafia movies it so respectfully tips its hat to. It also boasts an early screenplay by Paul Schrader (“Taxi Driver,” “Raging Bull,” “Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters”), aided by his brother Leonard (“Kiss of the Spider Woman”).
In a dire situation, businessman George Tanner (Brian Keith) requests the help of longtime friend and ex-detective Harry Kilmer (Robert Mitchum), a man he served with in Tokyo during the post-war occupation, and one who still has plenty of connections. Tanner’s daughter and her boyfriend have been taken hostage by a Japanese gangster named Tono (Okada Eiji), who is hoping to secure more favorable conditions concerning a recent arms deal. Kilmer immediately seeks out Ken Tanaka (Takakura Ken), a somber former Yakuza member who owes him an unpayable debt for saving his sister Eiko (Kishi Keiko), who now runs a coffeehouse on the island. As Harry attempts to protect his friends and follow his own code of honor, he unwittingly forces Tanaka to return to his sword and once again fight the treacherous villains of his past.
Steadily replacing samurai epics throughout the ‘60s, Yakuza films became popular for their idealistic values of unwavering loyalty, courage, and honor, depicted through chivalrous underdog outlaws valiantly fighting to uphold their declining beliefs. Just as these pictures would typically begin with a confrontation or falling out with the Japanese mafia and end with a brutal showdown, Pollack’s work admirably retraces those mandates. He also places a unique spin on the formula as West intrudes upon East, contrasting cultural values and tradition and inadvertently forcing the thrillingly violent finale, dictated by barbaric reparations of blood and sacrifice.
Mitchum portrays Kilmer with a staunch resolution and an unshakable fidelity to his friends and family, perfectly complementing Takakura’s own resolve and adamant beliefs. When the time comes for action, neither man falters from their sense of duty, braving an opposition of far greater numbers and resources. Fueled by ancient customs and dark secrets, those qualities lead to one of the greatest climactic showdowns of the neo-noir style, complete with realistic swordfights and unabashed “justice” at the end of a shotgun. Solid performances, harrowing battles, and unconventional plot twists help make “The Yakuza” one of the best of its kind – a solemn, engrossing reflection on the lost values of a dying breed, where uncommon integrity can stand up to the sharpest of blades.
– Joel Massie