BR: Yakuza, The (1974)

June 30, 2017 | By

Film: Excellent

Transfer: Excellent

Extras: Very Good

Label:  Warner Archives

Region: All

Released: February 14, 2017

Genre:  Yakuza / Drama / Action

Synopsis: An ex-U.S. Marine returns to Japan to rescue the daughter of an old pal from a yakuza clan, but requires the aide of an acquaintance and an ex-lover, both of whom share a dark secret.

Special Features:  2007 Audio Commentary by director Sidney Pollack / Vintage making-of featurette: “Promises to Keep” (19:26) / Theatrical Trailer.




Derived from a story and originally scripted by brothers Leonard and Paul Schrader, respectively, producer-director Sydney Pollack, fresh off The Way We Were (1973), had Robert Towne (Chinatown) attenuate the action and violence and put a greater emphasis on the culture clashes between east and west, ultimately having the drama climax not with a grisly sequence of swordplay (which does happen near the end) but an act of contrition that liberates two men, and a shared relationship that’s haunted them since the end of WWII.

Warner Bros. was probably rubbing its hands, anticipating a martial arts success akin to Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon (1973), but Pollack delivered a long drama with very measured pacing that didn’t really please the studio, audiences, and critics of the day, but through the passing decades this dud has evolved into a unique western take on Japanese culture that’s a literal antithesis of Black Rain (1989).

Whereas Ridley Scott’s action-thriller had an ugly, arrogant American cop (Michael Douglas) teaching his Japanese counterpart (Ken Takakura) to loosen up, emote, sing, and become a better person by dispensing with some of the traditions and discipline and be more instinctive and improvisational, Pollack had American characters respecting a culture and following codes of behaviour, if not learning and finding virtue in tradition, observation, and calculated actions – essentially making an effort to understand rather than impose.

Yakuza’s story is tied to a quintet of characters who met during the American occupation of postwar Japan. Marine Harry Kilmer (Robert Mitchum) was having an affair with widow & new mother Eiko (Keiko Kishi) until her brother Ken (Takakura) returned from the dead. To avoid disgracing the family, Harry broke off and headed back to the U.S., where he built up his own life, albeit highly solitary with no joy.

When asked by old buddy / industrialist George (Brian Keith) to rescue his daughter from a yakuza clan, Harry returns to Osaka and ultimately seeks his old flame in the hope of connecting with Ken who might aide in saving George’s daughter from imminent death. While in Osaka, he stays with another ex-marine, Wheat (Herb Edelman).

The rescue operation is pretty irrelevant; it’s dealt with quite early in the film, because instead of action, Pollack wanted to fixate on Harry’s suspicions that something’s amiss between Ken and Keiko, and the audience remains in the dark as long as Harry, suspecting nothing but sensing the quiet tension between the three characters is tied to a dark event.

The cleverness of the script (which is remarkable, given Schrader and Towne were two very independent minds who took separate cracks at the story) is that on second viewing, just like a good mystery, we can see the signs and understand the awkwardness between the main characters, knowing full well of the dark secret and duress shared by a rare few.

In his steady and generally solid commentary track (originally recorded for the 2007 DVD), Pollack explains the pains to which he tried to craft a film that emulated native yakuza films and emphasized nuances, such as the formal introductions between yakuza men, which offer respect and reassure that neither party is armed.

Harry’s tagalong American security ‘shadow’ Dusty (Logan’s Run’s Richard Jordan) is tasked by George to protect / keep an eye on Harry, and it’s through Dusty that Pollack explains aspects of eastern culture. Dusty falls for Keiko’s daughter Hanako (Midway’s Christina Kokubo), and their short scenes show a loud thug calming himself and learning in slow, patient stages about respecting another culture.

In a lengthy montage, Wheat explains to Dusty Harry’s time in postwar Japan – a simple method to convey a quick backstory of three intertwined characters – and in a later sequence Harry seeks council from Ken’s older brother Goro (Flower Drum Song’s James Shigeta). Both men share an irritation with Ken’s stiff persona, and Goro offers Harry strategic options to help Ken deal with the precarious circumstances that follow the daughter’s rescue.

Pollack also worked with stellar behind-the-camera talent who add authenticity to the film’s look, such as Yoshiyuki Ishida’s superb set designs and décor, which maximize the 2.35:1 ‘scope ratio typical of many Japanese films; and Kozo Okazaki’s gorgeous cinematography and use of light & darkness, and warm pastel colours. Striking locations throughout Osaka and Kyoto make Yakuza feel like a hybrid, crafted with reverence rather than the exploitive approach in Black Rain.

It’s worth noting how Scott’s action film devolves into a classic eighties buddy cop film where the American may learn a bit of stuff form his Japanese partner, but retains his slick, vain self. Harry may fight with shotguns and pistols in Pollack’s drama, but he steps aside to allow Ken to fight his nemeses. When the dark secret is revealed, its resolution is both poetic and heart-wrenching instead of a back-slap and ‘we got ‘em’ cheer. Back Rain ends with smiles and a pop song; Yakuza brings closure to the torment that’s kept both men apart yet emotionally tethered. Moreover, the final resolution disliked by U.S. audiences in 1974 is correct because it has the hulking American offer closure that’s in line with yakuza tradition.

Pollack notes in his commentary the cultural differences in making amends for an offence. As the director opines, in Asian cultures saying sorry is absurd because there’s no proof of contrition, hence the need for a sacrifice or act of suffering. What Harry voluntarily commits at the end is more heart-wrenching than gut-wrenching, and it’s a cathartic conclusion to the constant tension that exists even in scenes where the two men aren’t even together.

Yakuza is also extremely well-cast, as both Mitchum and Takakura, himself a star of many yakuza films (Brutal Tales of Chivalry), have their own unique brand of stoicism and quiet suffering. Kishi is also superb as Harry’s old flame, and Keith is marvelous in what’s a minor role which he transcends in a great confession scene between George and clan leader Tono (Hiroshima mon amour’s Eiji Okada). It’s a beautifully acted & directed moment because instead of a yelling match or displays of phony machismo, Tono orders George to confess ‘no matter how embarrassing.’ George tells the frank truth like a wayward teen who dipped into his father’s wallet for extra cash, and instead of rage there’s restraint on both sides. Quiet looks, physical posture, and measured tones reveal much more than emotional and verbal clichés, and like Harry, George approaches his Japanese ‘business partner’ with deference and respect. (The scene also relates back to George’s first appearance in the film, in which he tells a gun-ready Dusty to ‘put it away’ and apologizes to Tono’s emissary in spite of being told his daughter will be brutally harmed in four days lest Harry not explain himself in person.)

Perhaps the strangest character in the cast is Wheat, an ex-Marine living in Osaka, observing customs and living a non-violent life in spite of having his walls decorated with vintage swords. He provides Harry with classic American guns & ammo, but when Tono’s killers descend and cause carnage in his home, he’s a hopeless pacifist, screaming ‘Stop! Stop! Please!’ repeatedly while Dusty does the heavy fighting.

Pollack may not be a traditional action director, but his grasp of suspense is rock solid, often fixating on reaction shots and glances among the balletic carnage. Yakuza is beautifully cut and does feature some choice violence, but perhaps the strangest omission is George’s death which is never seen. Pollack cites U.S. censor restrictions, but it’s bizarre that a vital scene in which Harry’s payback needs to be seen and felt is shown through repeated gunfire and off-screen screams; we never even see George get plugged, just a male figure ducking under a desk in a split-second.

Warner Archives’ Blu-ray happily retains the classic 70s Warner Communications logo (something often replaced with the more familiar WB shield), and extras include the commentary track and a vintage making-of featurette and messy, spoiler-laden trailer.Titled “Promises to Keep,” the featurette is narrated by Pollack who stitches together thoughts on culture with aspects of the script, character, and locations, and settles for a moment on an exchange that’s crucial to the film’s three main characters: the concept of giri, which is explained as part moral obligation to do the right thing, respect for humanity, and in another regard, a burden.

Pity there’s no isolated score track, as Dave Grusin’s score – his first of many for Pollack – is quite beautiful, never being too pop or rock oriented, and incorporating some traditional Japanese instruments in eerie theme variations.

Pollack’s next film would be the brisk, politically inflected suspense-thriller Three Days of the Condor (1976), whereas Paul Schrader would follow his screenwriting debut with Taxi Driver (1976), and later direct the visually striking Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985). Leonard Schrader would collaborate on several scripts with his brother, and do solo work on the cult shock doc The Killing of America (1981) and Naked Tango (1990), which he also directed.

Ken Takakura’s prolific career included many yakuza films, plus the cult film Bullet Train (1975).



© 2017 Mark R. Hasan



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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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