Movies in which East meets West have always been a somewhat tricky proposition. Historically, representations of Asians in American (and, for that matter, British/European) films and television have tended to hinge on stereotypes; generally either the impeccably wise asexual Kung Fu master, or “Miss-a Gorightry, I plotest.” The 1970s, being of course the most progressive decade in film history, saw some positive steps taken toward a better representation of foreign cultures, and The Yakuza is a strong example of this. A solid drama with a reputable wealth of talent – both American and Japanese – on both sides of the camera, director Sydney Pollack’s 1974 effort might not have aged quite so well as some films from the time (and I’m not sure it’s so fondly looked back on as the films Pollack made either side of it: The Way We Were, and Three Days of the Condor), but it’s an interesting look at relations between the US and Japan in the aftermath of World War II, and a far more balanced and less paranoid take than later Hollywood movies to venture into similar territory, like Black Rain and Rising Sun.
Old hand Robert Mitchum takes the lead as Harry Kilmer, and with a name like that you pretty much know right away that he’s a retired detective and a veteran of the US military post-war occupation of Japan. In that time, Kilmer became well acclimatised to Japanese culture, to the extent that he came close to marrying a local woman, Eiko (Keiko Keishi). But that was all a long time in the past for Kilmer, until a friend comes to him for help over a shady business deal with a Yakuza that’s gone wrong, resulting in the abduction of his daughter. This sends Kilmer back to Japan for the first time in decades, back to the woman he clearly still loves, and her brother Ken (Ken Takakura) with whom he has a more complicated relationship. As an ex-Yakuza, Ken is the only person Kilmer can turn to for help in rescuing the kidnapped American girl.
The Yakuza is notable as the first screenwriting credit for Paul Schrader, later a key collaborator of Martin Scorcese and a noteworthy director in his own right, although his script here was touched up by another notable scribe of the era, Robert Towne. It’s interesting to note that it seems to have been regarded an extremely violent movie at the time (Roger Ebert’s review makes it sound like Kill Bill’s House of Blue Leaves squared), when to modern eyes it really doesn’t come across that harsh. More striking now is just how heavy on exposition it all is, with lengthy explanations of Japanese customs, and the vital importance of honour and loyalty; this would seem to indicate just how alien such concepts were to American audiences at the time (and maybe still are to this day for some, am I right, honourable behaviour and whatnot, social comment, etc.) However, all these years later, with Japan’s own Samurai and Yakuza films widely seen and acknowledged as classics, it does seem a little unnecessary for an American movie to come along and try and explain everything to us, particularly in the form of such a grandfatherly figure as Mitchum. (Indeed, more of a shock to me than any of the Katana fights and shoot-outs was the fact that Mitchum drops the F-bomb at one point.)
Still, The Yakuza deserves credit for giving a human, largely non-patronising representation of Japanese characters. Takakura (veteran of literally dozens of Toei films, and later a co-star in the aforementioned Black Rain) is a badass tough guy without ever coming off like a superhuman Bruce Lee type; even in the more violent moments, there’s a grounded humanity to his performance that’s striking, and – while I don’t want to seem like I’m trashing Mitchum – we are often left wondering why the old American even needs to be there a lot of the time. Again – a positive step forward for an American film of the time, but now it may just leave you wondering why you don’t just watch an actual Japanese Yakuza film. Still, there’s a certain kick to be taken from seeing a comparatively early turn from James Shigeta, later immortalised as Takagi in Die Hard.
While it didn’t entirely win me over, this new edition of The Yakuza, released as part of the Warner Bros premium collection: a dual format DVD/Blu-ray, with a vintage featurette on the making of the film, an old director’s commentary track from the late Pollack, and set of collector’s cards.
It’s available now exclusively at HMV.