Ken Takakura and Brutal Tales of The Yakuza

June 30, 2017 | By

I had to put reviews on pause as this past weekend saw the Canadian + Toronto premiere of my doc BSV 1172 plus some video work, but next week I’ll have a podcast with some audio from the Q&A and other thoughts of the micro Eye Myth Cine-Gallery experimental film festival.

First up is a pair of yakuza dramas starring Ken Takakura, an amazing talent sometimes characterized as Japan’s Steve McQueen, which is really a lazy description for an actor who has his own distinct screen persona.

In Bullet Train (1975), he made a bomber sympathetic as a man driven to commit an act of desperation after being left behind by the country’s economic gold rush, and in Brutal Tales of Chivalry / Shôwa zankyô-den (1965), released on Blu by Twilight Time, he’s a reformed pacifist ultimately forced to pick up his sword and save his yakuza clan from economic ruin and social annihilation.

When Sidney Pollack was casting The Yakuza (1974), new on Blu from Warner Archives, Takakura was a perfect choice to co-star with Robert Mitchum in Paul Schrader’s first produced screenplay. It’s also the most atypical Hollywood action film shot on location in Japan for reasons I detail in my review.

In watching Pollack’s film and observing the characters tied to a dark secret, I couldn’t help feeling a little bit of déjà vu, and didn’t realize until the review’s near-completion that Takakura also played the Japanese counterpart to the U.S. detective sent to Japan in Ridley Scott’s bombastic Black Rain (1989). There are some striking similarities between the two films, but they’re very different animals, and as Pollack explains in his commentary track (ported over from the 2007 Yakuza DVD), the films of the 1970s were unique because there were no rules, and Hollywood was desperate to find a formula that clicked with audiences unresponsive to classic studio genre productions.

The Yakuza is slow and really a drama about differing cultures, whereas Black Rain is vintage boneheaded 1980s action. I don’t hate the latter, but one need only compare each film’s score: Dave Grusin’s Yakuza score is intimate, lush only in evoking a fleeting romance, and somewhat abstract in dramatic scenes; Hans Zimmer takes the might of orchestra and powerful synths and bombards the audience with heavy bass, massive percussion, and a romantic theme that hasn’t aged especially well.

I’ll still watch and enjoy Scott’s film for a laugh, but Pollack’s drama is sophisticated, understated, and lets its characters breathe. It’s also the perfect intro for western audiences to Japan’s own yakuza genre, because its script explains genre aspects one is expected to already know in dramas like Brutal Tales of Chivalry.

Coming next: reviews of the theatrical + hardcore edition of I Dream of Wires (2014), a superb documentary on modular synths by Robert Fantinatto and Jason Amm, and Gary Numan: Android in La La Land (2016).



Mark R. Hasan, Editor

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