“It’s still Japan and the Japanese are still Japanese.”
(Oliver Wheat – Herb Edelan)
“When an American cracks up, he opens up the window and shoots up a bunch of strangers. When a Japanese cracks up, he closes the window and kills himself. Everything is in reverse” (Dusty – Richard Jordan)
Ken Takakura as Ken Tanaka and Robert Mitchum as Harry Kilmer
These two quotes from 1974’s The Yakuza (one of my all-time favourite movies) are important to understanding the picture’s main themes.
Written by Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver) and Robert Towne (Chinatown) and directed by Sydney Pollack, The Yakuza tells the story of Mitchum’s retired PI and former Marine MP Harry Kilmer, who returns to Japan after many years to repay a debt of honor.
This is my favourite Mitchum performance, where he exhibits a weary leonine grace, also rocking a fine camel coat, parker and roll-neck sweater. Mitchum’s character is a ‘strange stranger’ a gaijin who has some understanding and acceptance of Japanese culture.
He also had great chemistry with his co-stars, especially the effortlessly cool Takakura Ken – who you may well recognise from Black Rain (1989) and Mr Baseball (1992).
Richard Jordan, who had acted with Mitchum in The Friends of Eddie Coyle the previous year also makes his mark as the ‘muscle’ Dusty who sides with Kilmer when the chips are down. Jordan had the looks and charisma to be a major star, it’s a great shame he didn’t make the big leagues before his premature death at the age of just 56.
All other speaking roles are well cast, but I must mention James Shigeta (Die Hard) as Ken’s older brother Goro, a senior Yakuza Oyabun (boss) seeking to steer the organisation into legitimate business.
And lastly Brian Keith (The McKenzie Break, Hardcastle & McCormick) as the shifty businessman Tanner.
The Yakuza is the kind of film which could have ended in the first 30 minutes if someone had the balls to let slip the secret that unwittingly binds Kilmer to Ken and his ‘sister’ Eiko (Keiko Kishi).
But that would obviously ruin the joy of watching this great movie – elegiac, poignant and with some superbly staged fight scenes, which I won’t spoil by showing any clips.
Director Sydney Pollack was a dab hand at delivering well-made star vehicles – most often with Robert Redford (The Way We Were, Out of Africa), but made a point of immersing himself in Japanese mores and morays for the picture.
Regular Pollack collaborator Dave Grusin’s score is sublime – not the overloaded chop-socky some composers would have gone for (bashing cymbals, shouts of hai! etc):
I can’t recommend The Yakuza highly enough.
またね (Mata ne: see you)