Two exciting trends enlivened Hollywood in the mid-1970s. First, Frances Ford Coppola’s The Godfather reinvigorated the gangster film. Second, Bruce Lee’s martial arts mayhem exploded on American screens, creating an enthusiastic audience for kung fu movies.
So why not merge the two?
That was the idea behind The Yakuza—a big studio production with a top-flight director, marketable star and expensive screenplay. The result is a mixed bag. Sometimes, this fusion of East and West works. Other times, it’s as misguided as cheeseburger sushi.
The Yakuza failed at the box office, and thus did not succeed in launching a new genre. Japanese gangster movies did not find a market in the United States until the 1990s.
Still, accompanied by a bag of microwave popcorn, this movie offers a fine night’s entertainment.
Veteran tough guy Robert Mitchum stars as retired American cop Harry Kilmer. He is contacted by desperate former Army buddy George Tanner (Brian Keith, who had previously played the kindly uncle/stepfather of youngsters in the popular TV series Family Affair). Tanner is now a sleazy arms trader who has stiffed a yakuza chieftain in a big deal. In return, that mob boss has kidnapped Tanner’s daughter and threatened to kill her if the weapons don’t show up within four days. Oh my, if Buffy and Jody ever found out what had become of Uncle Bill.
Anyway, Kilmer flies to Kyoto to rescue the girl. He enlists the help of retired yakuza member Tanaka Ken (played by Japanese box-office champ Takakura Ken). You quickly notice two things about Ken. First, he wields a blade better than Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York. Second, he’s got a palpable hatred for Kilmer.
This is where things get complicated. We learn that Kilmer was a member of the American occupying forces in Japan after World War II and saved the life of Ken’s sister. He also had an affair with her.
Ken, meanwhile, spent six years hiding in a Philippine jungle after the war before returning to Japan. It gnaws at him to know that a former enemy saved his sister. It gnaws at him more that under the Japanese rules of obligation—called giri—Ken must spend the rest of his life returning that favor to Kilmer.
There are more twists and double-crosses to the plot, which gets so muddy at one point that Mitchum must provide a voice-over narration to make things comprehensible. There’s a decent subplot about Kilmer’s rekindling of an affair with the woman he loved but never got to marry. Mostly, you learn about debts of honor and the unbreakable codes of conduct of the Japanese underworld.
And while it doesn’t quite evolve into a buddy movie, Ken and Kilmer do come to respect each other as veteran warriors. Their on-screen chemistry works. Takakura brings an intense edginess, which balances Mitchum’s typical hangdog performance as a world-weary tough guy.
The Yakuza’s fixation with Asian wisdom and social codes grows tiresome after about an hour. But the film is energized by the blood and body parts splattering the screen. There are three great battle scenes, with Ken swinging his sword and Kilmer (unsportingly, we think) firing away with a 12-gauge, double-barreled shotgun. Don’t tune out before the final showdown at the gambling parlor, where our two heroes take on 21 heavily tattooed yakuza gangsters. You know who’s gonna win.
Director Sydney Pollack, better known for chick-friendly flicks like The Way We Were and Tootsie, goes a little berserk with decapitations, disembowelments and, as every yakuza movie requires, the chopping off of pinkies. Not that we’re complaining.
CASTING CALL: Lee Marvin and Robert Redford were both considered for Mitchum’s role. Martin Scorsese wanted to direct this film right after finishing Mean Streets, but was passed over for Pollack.
HIT: The over-the-top action scenes in this film are marvelously choreographed. That final showdown featuring two men taking on 21 would do Brian De Palma proud.
MISS: We only notice soundtrack music when it is extremely good or bad. And The Yakuza’s soundtrack music is not extremely good. Makes us recall The Mod Squad and other dated TV shows from the 1970s.
BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW: The original screenplay by Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull) and Robert Towne (Chinatown, The Last Detail) sold for a then-record $300,000.
DON’T FAIL TO NOTICE: The Japanese club singer leading a room full of lounge lizards in “Oh My Darling, Clementine.” That’s what they regard as American music?
“I KNOW THAT GUY”: Veteran character actor Herb Edelman plays Oliver Wheat, the weak-hearted American host who hides behind the stairs whining, “Stop it! Stop it!” during one of the big shootout scenes. If you thought he was a wimp as Bea Arthur’s husband in The Golden Girls, wait until you catch him in this.
BEST LINE: Kilmer and his American protégé, Dusty (Richard Jordan), debate whether they can rely on Ken, the acerbic retired yakuza, to protect them in an imminent battle. Kilmer explains that under the Japanese system of honor, Ken has that obligation—giri—to Kilmer for saving his sister.
Dusty: “You mean he figures he owes you something?”
Kilmer: “Yeah, sort of.”
Dusty: “Well, that can work two ways. If you ain’t alive tomorrow, he don’t owe you shit.”
VIOLENCE LEVEL: High, in an outlandish way. The best example comes during a battle at a monastery when a yakuza aims his Smith & Wesson at Kilmer. Ken saves his partner by hurling a samurai sword at the bad guy, whose arm is severed at the wrist. The disembodied hand flies through the air, harmlessly firing the gun at the ceiling.
BODY COUNT: A lusty thirty-one, including eighteen in the final showdown at the gambling parlor.
WHAT THEY WROTE AT THE TIME: “This movie is a cinematic hybrid that crosses American stars, writers and a director with a popular Japanese film form. To come upon it unsuspecting is a little like opening an Almond Joy wrapper and finding inside the arrangement of fish, rice and seaweed.”—New York Times
REPEATED WATCHING QUOTIENT: Once ought to cover it.
IF YOU LIKED THIS, YOU’LL LIKE: Kill Bill: Vol. 1. Quentin Tarantino makes no secret that he cribs ideas from other movies. He must have taken copious notes watching The Yakuza. That great moment in Kill Bill: Vol. 1 when Uma Thurman impales a gangster and then uses his body as a shield against others? It’s not the only trick that was done here first.
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[Reprinted from The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies by George Anastasia and Glen Macnow. Available from Running Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2011.]
George Anastasia is a crime reporter for the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and author of several books, including “Blood and Honor” which Jimmy Breslin called “the best gangster book ever written.”
Glen Macnow was a writer for the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and “Detroit Free Press.” He is currently a talk-radio host on 610-WIP in Philadelphia.
George and Glen have co-authored “The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies.”