The Yakuza (1974) is an American Neo-noir/Crime film, based in Japan. The film is well known for it’s deep contrast of cultural values between Japan and America, most notably from post-occupation changes from the war. It also highly centers around the concept of obligation and debt, or Giri alternatively. I hadn’t really heard of the Yakuza until it became available on my digital service, but I was quite surprised at the quality of the film. The film is directed by academy award winning director Syndey Pollack (Out of Africa, Tootsie, Havana) while the screen play is written co-written by Robert Towne (Chinatown, Mission Impossible), Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull), and Leonard Schrader (Kiss of the Spider Woman).
Jake Gittes Harry Kilmer (Robert Mitchum) is called upon for a debt he owes for a friend, someone he was friends in the service with. George Tanner (Brian Keith) asks him to go back to japan, and rescue his daughter from the head of the Yakuza. He agrees, and goes back, meeting his old flame Eiko (Keiko Kishi) and her daughter. Harry recounts his former love with her, and how Eiko’s brother Ken (Ken Takakura) came back from war, and was disgusted and wouldn’t allow them to marry. Ken then joined the underground Yakuza, Harry forces Eiko into telling him where he can find Ken. He goes to Kyoto, finding Ken, now a kendo instructor who tells him where he can find Tono, the head of the Yakuza, Ken also feels obliged to go with him. Though Ken has a lot of contempt for Harry, ultimately Harry saved and looked after Ken’s family while he was gone.
Ken and Harry save the girl, angering Tono, who then takes out contracts on their lives. They go to Ken’s brother, a high ranking official (of something or rather) but he cannot help them as he doesn’t want to get involved, however he does warn Ken not to kill his son who now works for the Yakuza, identified by a spider tattoo on his forehead. It’s revealed George the man who asked for a favor in the first place had double-crossed Tono and Harry, and Tono had taken his daughter as payment for weapons he never received. To end this, Harry and Ken go and raid the Yakuza, emerging mostly unscathed as Ken faces Tono in honorable battle by blade. Ken apologises to his brother, as he has slain his son, he asks for forgiveness by committing yubitsume, a yakuza ritual in which a small finger is sliced off, and offered as a token of humility. It’s revealed that Ken isn’t Eiko’s brother, but Eiko’s husband as Harry apologizes to Ken for usurping his family in the past, as he also commits yubitsume. They deeply bow to each other, before Harry departs for the U.S
Didn’t want to waffle, but Yakuza has a very intense, and quite in-depth narrative. It’s interesting as the whole former lovers thing between Eiko, Ken, and Harry isn’t explained that well, but it actually makes sense because why would it be when it’s so far in the past when Harry revisits? In it’s casting, I think Robert Mitchum is probably slightly too old considering he’s in some actions scenes and it comes across as quite unbelievable. However, Ken Takakura is superb as Ken, a very brooding deep character who carries most of the action sequences of the film. Overall the story feels quite solid, but things tend to unfold on their own, it’d make sense if we saw a little more detective work from Harry considering he used to be one. The scenery, and interiors of Yakuza feel authentically Japanese. The lighting is very low-key and quite harsh, making it feel like a noir story, which certainly relates to the past, present and future of Yakuza with no real happy endings or absurdist equilibrium to be seen, just harsh reality.
The motifs of loyalty, respect, and honor are certainly interesting. It focuses quite deeply on Ken’s giri, and how he feels obliged to Harry for saving his daughter while he was away in the war, regardless of the fact Harry essentially ruined his life, and separated Ken from his family. It’s also interesting to note that the villain, Tono, didn’t actually do much wrong. He merely took George’s daughter as he had paid for guns, and George had literally no intention of supplying them as we learn much later. For a villain who ultimately dies quite a harsh death, that’s some odd ideology behind that. Especially considering in this American film, there seems to be a much greater degree of morality, and honor among it’s Japanese characters, where the same cannot be said for it’s American characters, George and Harry. There’s also a lot mentioned about how the Yakuza used to essentially be Samurai, not a crime syndicate likening it to Ken’s involvement in the Yakuza and how it hasn’t corrupted him.
Verdict: Excellent. Yakuza is a film with a fantastic script, decent direction, with good performances. I feel like the script wasn’t exactly Sydney Pollack’s style and like the similar Chinatown written by Robert Towne, might have been better directed by someone like Polanski. However, the themes, scenery, and imagery flesh out Yakuza to be a beautiful, yet brutal and gripping film. With action, heartbreak, and intense plot, I’d highly recommend The Yakuza as being worth anyone’s time.