The Yakuza (1974)    2 Stars

“100 years ago they were called Samurai.”

The Yakuza (1974)
The Yakuza (1974)

Director: Sidney Pollack

Cast: Robert Mitchum, Ken Takakura, Brian Keith

Synopsis: Harry Kilmer returns to Japan after several years in order to rescue his friend George’s kidnapped daughter – and ends up on the wrong side of the Yakuza, the notorious Japanese mafia…







Craggy Harry Kilmer (Robert Mitchum – Out of the Past, Cape Fear) returns to Japan 25 years after he was part of the occupation forces in Sidney Pollack’s admirable The Yakuza. He has a friend in the States whose name is George Tanner (Brian Keith – 5 Against the House, Reflections in a Golden Eye). George is in trouble with the Yakuza, Japan’s answer to the Mafia. He reneged on a deal to supply them with guns, so they’ve snatched his daughter, and won’t give her back – at least not in one piece – until they get the munitions they paid for. Tanner knows Kilmer has contacts in the Yakuza, because while he was serving in Japan he dated a local woman (Keiko Kishi) whose brother (Ken Takakura) is a member, and asks for his help. In fact, the plot’s more complicated than that, but space and time don’t allow a fuller synopsis. Needless to say, it’s a complicated situation.

Kung Fu was big in the early 70s, and TV and moviemakers were keen to cash in on this craze for the Oriental. Japan, China, Hong Kong – it didn’t really matter; the cultures were interchangeable as far as Hollywood was concerned. The Yakuza isn’t a cash-in, though – it’s better than that. It’s about missed chances and regrets for the past and for what could have been. The script by Paul Schrader and Robert Towne – who, between them, wrote Taxi Driver and Chinatown – is sharp and intelligent. It makes a real effort to explore and explain Japanese and Yakuza culture. There’s little action – and no chop-socky acrobatics. The Japanese speak in their own tongue when addressing one another, and we never get to know what they say because there are no subtitles. But it doesn’t matter – we always know what’s going on.

Mitchum gives a half-decent performance at a time in his life when he was beginning to look as if he didn’t give a damn whether he gave a good performance or not, while Richard Jordan, who plays Tanner’s nephew sent to accompany Kilmer on his mission, serves as the audience surrogate. Initially, we think he’s going to be something of a sleaze because of his abominable fashion sense (even for 1974), but he turns out to be a pretty decent guy. The standout performance is Ken Takakura, though, who endows his quietly tragic character with the dignity and grace he deserves. It’s a good film, you should watch it.

(Reviewed 6th September 2015)

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