Originally shown September 1, 2010
One reason film buffs love the movies of the 1970s is that many of them would like to write their own films, and 1970s movies are very “writerly.” They have long, dialogue-heavy scenes laden with conflict between characters, conflict that can only be resolved by getting in the last best words. Some of that decade’s movies are great for this reason, and some are utterly boring. Personally I think Sydney Pollack’s 1974 film The Yakuza falls in the first category, but when I showed it at Movie Klub I was afraid everyone would put it in the second.
The Yakuza was the first script from Paul Schrader, who would go on to revolutionize film writing itself with his next script, Taxi Driver. It purports to be an action movie about a daughter’s kidnapping, the rescue arranged by her father, and the complications that ensue among the Japanese underworld. The dialogue reveals it to be a story of two estranged friends (Robert Mitchum and Ken Takakura) and their slow realizations about the ways they’ve changed each other’s lives.
Throughout the film it becomes clear that Mitchum was getting a little old for this sort of thing. He still had a few action movies left in him – check out the poster for The Amsterdam Kill two years later – but they were, like this one, variations on the “aging gunslinger” theme. The thing which makes him especially awesome in The Yakuza is that he seems filled with regret and sadness. Any movie can have Mitchum as the shotgun-wielding tough guy, but it takes a special film to have Mitchum as a shotgun-wielding tough guy who despairs about who he is and what he has done to the people in his life.
Ken Takakura is the film’s revelation. Many Americans (including me), if they knew him at all, only knew him as an uptight cop in the 1989 Michael Douglas vehicle Black Rain. It turns out that he was playing against type in that movie; his long Japanese career is littered with roles as samurai and Yakuza gangsters. Roles exactly like this one, in other words, where he is called upon to kill men not because there’s any joy in it but because it is his duty.
This is a dated Hollywood studio production, one which assumes that Joe Moviegoer has never even seen a Japanese person and therefore needs to have the concept of honor explained in the most obvious way possible. Like many movies of the ’70s, it has a leisurely pace; a couple of early montage sequences slow the movie down and seem like poor choices by the director. However, once the actual rescue of the kidnap victims goes off, the film starts to cook. Two things immediately happen: the conversations fill with tension between characters, and the heroes start doing things that are not in their best interest.
Mitchum’s and Ken’s whole reason for being together in Tokyo seems to go away 35 minutes in; by rights they should be back in America and Kyoto before the movie is even half over. They stay because they have obligations to each other, obligations which the audience tries to understand from the movie’s many conversations. It’s very telling that, even after the film’s impressive final action sequence, there are still two more important dialogue scenes. These scenes are the actual climax of the movie because we learn what these characters are willing to give in order to put right the wrongs they’ve done in their lives.
I’ve never hated any film directed by Pollack, who by 1974 was already a veteran with an Oscar nomination under his belt. He makes some great decisions in the film’s second half, such as staging one important shoot-out with no music. But this really isn’t his movie. It belongs to Schrader, and to the actors who sell his writing. There is no shortage of films in which Mitchum and Takakura are awesome, but only one script ever asked Mitchum to make the sacrifice that he makes at the end of The Yakuza, and that’s what makes it special for me.
Reviewed by Mark Young