Flick of the Day: The Yakuza

Sydney Pollack, who passed away in May 2008, was one of the great underestimated talents of American cinema in the last century. A director, producer and actor, he was a multi talented individual who won two Academy Awards. Perhaps his most endearing talent was his ability as an artist to turn his hand to a diverse range of genres. From comedy to thrillers to romance to drama, he could direct a picture. In this vein, today's flick of the day is The Yakuza, a 1974 Japan set neo-noir.
A film that was little seen on its original release, The Yakuza was directed by Pollack from a script by Paul Schrader who would go onto find greater fame with his script for Taxi Driver and Blue Collar. An ageing Robert Mitchum is Harry Kilmer, an ex-military policeman asked to return to Japan by an old friend to intervene on behalf of his daughter who has been kidnapped by members of the Yakuza. Kilmer has not been back to Japan for 20 years since the last days of the occupation and returning brings back many memories. He reconnects with his old flame Eiko and her brother Ken, who was a high ranking Yakuza when Harry left Japan and Harry's sworn enemy. Ken is played by the great Japanese actor Takakura Ken. Ken has always resented Harry as he took care of Eiko during the war and thus is owed a debt that cannot be repaid by Ken. In an effort to repay this debt, Harry and Ken, who has left the Yakuza, join forces to save the girl. All however is not as it seems and Harry is forced to see where his true loyalties and those of his friends lie as the film moves to a dramatic and fitting finale.
The Yakuza is an unusual film for its era, even in the supposedly enlightened 70's. It displays a strong degree of cultural sensitivity and a surprisingly deep understanding of Japanese culture. This is perhaps due to Paul Schrader's meticulously researched script, based on a story by his brother Leonard. Schrader was one of the great writing talents to emerge from the 70's new wave of American cinema and though he would go on to greater things, this is a fine debut. The film is very much an exploration of the themes of guilt and honour. Mitchum's Harry is a world weary vet who has to question his past actions and even his point of view to reconcile with Ken and become immersed once more in Japanese culture.
Pollack as a director has always been more known for his ability to draw performances from actors then for a distinct visual style and this is evident in this film. Mitchum gives one of the best performances of his later career and gives this appearance throughout of carrying a great burden on his shoulders, namely his past. That said, the film is visually stylish, making great use of the almost otherworldly nature of hyper modern Japan. There is colour galore, with an Autumnal tone throughout perhaps to enforce the feeling of impending death.

It really is a shame that this film was not seen by a wider audience on its release as it is a gem. A surprisingly intelligent and deep tale will hold your interest throughout while Ken and Harry form a great partnership. At times a sober and quiet meditation on sacrifice, it introduces western audiences to the nature of Japanese culture and beliefs. Yet in the end, it delivers a thrilling and spectacular denouement in which Ken shows his incredible skills with a katana.
The decision to use ethnic actors and to film in Japan may not seem ground breaking for a modern cinema goer but they were at the time. You have to imagine this is an era where it was only a few short years on from Genghis Khan being played by John Wayne or an Apache Native American being played by Burt Lancaster. It is a good thing that this is no longer something seen as acceptable and yet it sets this film apart and marks it as something which along with the subject matter, is ahead of its time. A fine film.