**½/**** Image A- Sound C Extras C
starring Robert Mitchum, Takakura Ken, Okada Eiji, Brian Keith
screenplay by Paul Schrader and Robert Towne
directed by Sydney Pollack
by Jefferson Robbins We'll never know what might have been had Paul and Leonard Schrader's original screenplay for The Yakuza gone unmolested by '70s script king Robert Towne, or had Martin Scorsese or Brian De Palma made good on threats to direct. Instead, the obvious gets overlaid on top of the mysterious, and at least one partner in this marriage of the American and Japanese gangster genres winds up shorted. Producer-director Sydney Pollack makes the mistake his best peers in the decade's American cinema dodged: he mistrusts the audience, believing we can't absorb backstory through performance and suggestion.
The binary heroes of The Yakuza are introduced totemically. On the streets of Tokyo, a teahouse light winks out, leaving American hardcase Harry Kilmer (Robert Mitchum) in symbolic darkness. The first appearance of his counterpart Tanaka Ken (Takakura Ken) is thoroughly Japanese: he bows, pulls out a katana, and chops at the camera. After a promising start, buoyed by the prospect of Mitchum gumshoeing his way into uncharted Asian territories, Pollack stops to paint Kilmer in the finest possible strokes, and he does it all in dialogue. American expatriate Oliver Wheat (Herb Edelman) verbally relates the story of how Harry came to love and lose his paramour Eiko (Kaishi Keiko) in the rebuilding of postwar Tokyo. The exposition, admittedly complex, gets frontloaded, a choice that undermines the noir component. In the best film noir, not only do you not know who's getting played, you barely know the real players until they're forced to reveal themselves.
To its credit, The Yakuza is attentive to its Japanese story and characters, with whom Harry must negotiate as he tries to recover the kidnapped daughter of occupation buddy George Tanner (Brian Keith). His own motivations fully fleshed out, he walks straight into a web of secret relationships more subtle and energetic than anything he represents. ("Harry, sometimes you're very naive," Eiko tells our American hero.) He must call on his long-estranged underworld contact Ken, who's turned from his gangster ways but, if asked, will break potent vows to the yakuza to fulfill a deep obligation to Harry. The real crime is in the asking. The interesting story here isn't Mitchum in Japan, it's the Japan around Mitchum. The respect paid to the yakuza-eiga genre shows up Harry and his fellow gaijin adventurers as a blundering, too-loud presence in the midst of quiet tension. And when the deceit at the heart of the plot comes to light, it's revealed not through detective work or a dramatic reversal, but by a guilty young American gunsel (Richard Jordan) who knew it all along--again, in dialogue.
Is it racist to say that in certain night shots, Robert Mitchum could pass for Japanese? It might be intentional, since Kilmer's arc is a journey from American tourist to fellow traveler in Japan's gangster subculture. The conflict and scarification he undergoes is designed to fully integrate him into a society he's only collided with up to that point. Mitchum seems to sense his character's blunted edge, and plays the part in a sort of fog, with minimal force, fire, or fear. This anemia in the noir component leaves Takakura to take up the slack, and he does so with aplomb. Ken's face after he sheds blood, in violation of his oath, says it all: he knows he's fucked, and he knows it's Harry's fault. In the picture's instinctive grasp of Ken's quandary, I sense the Schraders; in Harry's heavy-handed agonism, I detect Towne. The integration isn't seamless, but in a story of competing cultures, should it be?
"100 years ago they were called samurai," avers the jacket copy on this 2007-issue DVD... No, the yakuza most assuredly were not. Photographed in Panavision by Japanese cinematographer Okazaki Kozo--save for the U.S. sequences, shot by Duke Callaghan with a distinctly second-unit feel--The Yakuza is a collage of teak reds, bamboo golds, some unfortunate Wonka purples, and lots of plaid slacks. Oh, 1970s, what did we do to deserve you? The mastering on this 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer appears to have paid fine attention to colour saturation, but that doesn't mean the movie's Technicolor looks any more vivid than, say, an episode of "Emergency!". Pollack's camera dollies well, pushing in for emphasis, while many of his static choices are depressingly traditional and TV-like. He goes handheld for high-tension, of course, in a sequence that reminds of John Boorman's Point Blank. Adding to the television feel is a thin DD 1.0 monaural soundtrack that leaves little room for atmospherics, or for Dave Grusin's very dated but culturally-blended score. The opening credits fetishize male tattoo models the way James Bond title sequences of the era leered at nude female silhouettes, while Grusin's music therein could pass for a Bond love theme. (Note that Warner has replaced the 1975 studio logo with the current CGI one.)
Pollack, just a year before his death, offers a solo yak-track, looking at his film for the first time in what sounds like decades. He falls silent in a few of the quieter scenes, especially early on, and recognizes The Yakuza as an artifact of its game-changing era: "It's really a film from the '70s, I think. It doesn't seem to belong at all in today's lexicon of films that are being made." The East-West dichotomy was what drew him to the Schraders' script, although he cops to bringing in Towne for a polish, because the story on offer "was too much a straight-ahead martial arts picture for me." Pollack voices regret over the VHS revolution that pushed him away from widescreen, once he saw that his films were being consumed at home in pan-and-scan incarnations. (His return to the 'scope format after twenty years was also his last, regrettable feature, The Interpreter.) His memory of the shoot is strong, and he notes interesting extratextual items, like the cloth midriff bindings that yakuza wear to contain their intestines if they get stabbed, or the fact that many Japanese members of the production were missing pinky fingers. It makes sense that Japanese film tradesmen might have yakuza ties, if you think about similar mafia infiltration into American industries.
The disc's only other extra is a 1.33:1 fullscreen making-of, "... Promises To Keep" (19 mins.), created as promotion for The Yakuza's original release. The grainy footage catches Pollack providing direction and exchanging ideas with his Japanese crew through a translator. Pollack sits for an interview, where he introduces some of the notions he'll repeat thirty years down the road on the audio commentary, but no word from Mitchum. Today, the star would be the first one debriefed for the EPK--the '70s really were different. Available individually or as part of Warner's box set "Robert Mitchum: The Signature Collection". Originally published: May 4, 2010.