Thursday, March 20, 2008

The Yakuza: Japanese Film Noir


When you think of martial arts films of the 70s, Bruce Lee and the Shaw Brothers’ Kung Fu classics probably spring to mind. Arguably Lee almost single handedly defined the best of the genre and set a standard that has yet to be matched. The majority of films focusing on martial arts were low budget affairs utilizing simplistic stories and sets, but with garish action and bloody combat, these flicks captured the imagination of moviegoers everywhere.

In the midst of all the chop socky cinema, another type of martial arts fueled film released in 1975, was unfortunately overlooked during its initial run, but deserves a closer look. 'The Yakuza', released by Warner Bros., directed by Sydney Pollack and starring the legendary Robert Mitchum and iconic Japanese superstar Ken Takakura, is an international, cultural cinematic marriage that works splendidly.

‘The Yakuza’ started life controversially as a spec script by Paul Schrader. It was the center of what was then the highest priced bidding war in Hollywood history, ultimately sold for $325,000. Martin Scorsese was originally ontap to direct, but Schrader didn’t want him. Partnering with his brother Leonard, and the project ultimately went to Pollack. Schrader and his brother had a bitter falling out over the final writing credit and never spoke again.

In the 60s, Samurai cinema in Japan, roughly the equivalent of America's westerns, was on the wane. Toei Studios, one of the premier studios in Japan, turned to the Yakuza for inspiration. 'Yakuza' roughly translated means 'gangster' or 'gambler'. A more literal translation is 'good for nothing'. The first yakuza film was 'Bakuto' in 1962, but the genre' really caught fire with the release of 'Abashiri Prison' in 1965, launching the career of charismatic actor Takakura, generally regarded as the Clint Eastwood of Japan.

Takakura presented a brooding, almost mournful presence who was quick to settle his disagreements with the sharp edge of a long sword. Physically impressive and graceful, Takakura would often apologize in advance for the carnage he was about to create. 'Abashiri Prison' was a smash in Japan, spawning 17 sequels. The formula was always the same: a yakuza, recently released from prison arrives in a small town determined to walk the straight and narrow. Ultimately he’s reluctantly drawn into a situation where honor and loyalty are threatened, with the only solution a battle where the yakuza faces down dozens of his enemies in the villain’s lair. Often during the long walk to the final battle, Takakura sings on the soundtrack about his lonely life, while pausing under a street light to fire up a cigarette or to meet a lone friend to help do the dirty deeds.

Honor, duty and humanity are key elements of yakuza films. Commonly known as giri , the debt that can never be paid, honor and duty reign above all, while humanity, especially where Takakura is concerned, is what keeps the films from being empty blood baths. You can tell by the way he walks that Takakura is carrying the weight of everyone he’s ever sliced and diced.

Robert Mitchum personifies all that’s good about film noir. A burly, heavy lidded outsider,
Mitchum starred in the penultimate noir flick, ‘Out of the Past’, which featured the famous line that served as the titles of an excellent bio on him ‘Baby, I Don’t Care’.

One look at Mitchum and you’d think he’s just a slow-witted thug, but in fact he was an accomplished poet, singer and an actor of uncommon depth. From the forties through the early seventies, Mitchum gave memorable performances in countless films in a variety of genres’, starring in films like ‘Night of the Hunter’, ‘El Dorado’, ‘Cape Fear’ which captured his aura of danger and explosive violence perfectly. By the 1970s, Mitchum’s success and hard living had provided his features with a world weary, lived in look that served him well in ‘The Yakuza’.

Mitchum stars as retired detective Harry Kilmer, who’s asked by an old friend, George Tanner (Brian Keith), to rescue his daughter who’s been kidnapped in Japan by the Yakuza. Kilmer has history in Japan, that Tanners believes can help find his child.

Kilmer reluctantly agrees and goes to Japan to rekindle a relationship with the love of his life, Eiko (Kishi Keiko), who he met as a marine during the post-war occupation. In order to get to the bottom of what’s going on, Kilmer calls on Eiko’s brother, former yakuza Tanaka Ken (Takakura). The two men have a complicated relationship, as Ken a former soldier, was furious that his sister was in love with and living with his former military enemy. At the same time, he was grateful to Kilmer for saving the life of Eiko and her young daughter. Kilmer asked Eiko to marry him, but she refused, careful not to do anything else to further estrange her from her brother. With no reason to stay in Japan, Kilmer gifted Eiko with a coffeehouse and returned to America.

For a yakuza, honor and obligation come before almost anything else. As such, when Kilmer asks Ken for information about how to find and retrieve Tanner’s daughter, Ken has no choice but to agree, as is required by giri. The two men reunite in a tense reunion, but Ken’s honor compels him to assist Kilmer in his search. Together they find Tanner’s daughter and her boyfriend. During the attempt to free them, Ken is revealed to have betrayed his former associates, causing a contract to be placed on his head and Kilmer’s. Ken resolves to handle this turn of events on his own, but Kilmer insists on helping him, but Ken refuses.

Eiko connects Kilmer with Ken’s older brother, Goro, who is a senior advisor to the Yakuza , for help with saving Ken’s life. Goro meets with Kilmer, but can’t actively participate in a solution, due to his role with the yakuza. He suggests that the death of the head of that particular family by either Ken or Kilmer would relieve the contract on their lives.

As Kilmer attempts to work through this new information, he’s hit with more unsettling news, his friend Tanner is in cahoots with the yakuza and is the one who put the hit on him and Ken. During an assassination attempt, Eiko’s daughter is killed by a stray bullet. Ken’s pain is clear even through his stoicism, while Kilmer is simply crushed.

Ken and Kilmer go back to Goro for help. Goro suggests killing both the head of the yakuza and Tanner, eliminating the contract and restoring Ken’s reputation. Before
leaving, Goro shares a secret with Kilmer about Eiko and Ken that leaves him guilt ridden and shaken. It turns out that Eiko and Ken were married, not brother and sister and Eiko’s murdered daughter was also Ken’s. Kilmer is shattered, feeling that it’s his fault that Eiko and Ken’s lives have been ruined because of him.

Now the concept of giri exists for both men. In the first phase of the showdown, Kilmer finds and kills his old friend, Tanner, then reunites with Ken for a suicidal invasion in the yakuza’s lair. In a long and bloody battle, the two men, fight their way through what seems like dozens of gangsters until the final confrontation between Ken and the yakuza boss, settled in the traditional yakuza manner.

Following the onslaught, Kilmer offers a formal apology to Ken for the pain and heartache he brought to both Ken and Eiko. As a sign of the sincerity of his apology, Kilmer performs yubitsume, the yakuza tradition of severing one’s little finger as an act of contrition. He also asks Ken to forgive Eiko the sins of the past. The two men were reunited as enemies and part as the closest of friends.

In the midst of the action and violence, there is an overwhelming since of regret and loss that intrudes on almost every scene of the film. Kilmer’s reunion with Eiko is almost unbearably bittersweet. You can see the love that still lives in both of them, but you can almost taste their mutual realization that they can’t go back to what they had years ago. The death of Eiko’s daughter represents more than the loss of innocence, it violently forces both Kilmer and Ken to accept the reality that all of their lives are irretrievably broken.

Sydney Pollack filmed ‘The Yakuza’ after ‘The Way We Were’ and before ‘Three Days of the Condor’. Looking at his broad resume’, one wouldn’t expect to find a film like ‘The Yakuza’, and Pollack never did another film that is so closely tied to a specific genre’. In a way, it’s one of his most non-traditional films and one of his best.


The Yakuza is an exotic film that seamlessly blends the traditions of two genres’ of movies into a compelling look at the way honor, duty and humanity influences the lives and actions of two men who have a lot more in common than either would have ever thought.

2 comments:

Kostmayer01 said...

Excellent post.

I caught this film last year and it has quickly become one of my favourites.It's a shame its not more widely known.

John Kenly said...

This is my all time favorite. I have watched this about 10 times.

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