The early 1970s were a golden age for gangster cinema. In the West, there was Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972). In the East, Kinji Fukasaku’s Battles Without Honour and Humanity (1973). And then, there was The Yakuza (1974), Sydney Pollack’s fusion of both. Developed from an idea by Leonard Schrader, an American expat living in Japan, and scripted by his brother Paul Schrader (Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters) and Robert Towne (script doctor for The Godfather), it follows several American characters who get tangled up in Japan’s criminal underworld. Robert Mitchum stars as Harry Kilmer, a former US military policeman during the Allied occupation of Japan, who returns to Japan at the behest of his friend Tanner. It seems the yakuza have kidnapped Tanner’s daughter after a shady deal gone awry and Kilmer’s connections are the only way to get her back. That means going back to Tokyo and getting in touch with a yakuza named Tanaka (Ken Takakura, The Bullet Train) indebted to Kilmer. Heavily inspired by contemporary Japanese films watched by the Schraders and no doubt hoping to cash in on the success of The Godfather via “Japan’s mafia”, The Yakuza works surprisingly well as a slow-burn crime thriller that leans heavily on its then-exotic setting.
It’s not clear to me how American audiences might have perceived Japan in the early ‘70s. It was before the country’s stratospheric economic rise in the 1980s (and its subsequent fall when the Bubble burst), exemplified in movies like Die Hard (1988) where the action takes place in the towering headquarters of a Japanese company dripping with wealth. I could only find a handful of US movies set in Japan before The Yakuza, and they tend to revolve around World War 2, the subsequent occupation, or the Korean War, perpetuating a view of Japan rooted in the 1940s or 50s. Japanese films were of course available in the United States, but with the most famous being Akira Kurosawa’s period pieces, they probably wouldn’t help update the average American’s popular perception of the country. The highest profile film would most likely be Japan-set Bond movie You Only Live Twice (1967). That, as well as the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, surely had to paint a very different picture of Japan than the one remembered from World War 2 or echoed in the Occupation.
The Occupation looms large over the film; Kilmer was an MP before leaving Japan. His network includes other ex-military men like Tanner who used business to bridge the gap between the US and Japan, and Wheat, now an academic living in Tokyo in a house filled with bric a brac. It’s Wheat that provides a lot of exposition for the audience on Japanese culture – mostly realistic, some less so. At one point, Kilmer looks up at the Tokyo skyline and detecting his expression, Wheat suggests that it’s still Japan even if “they watch TV now from tatami mats, and can’t see Fuji through the smog.” I’d initially interpreted that as one expat speaking to another, with Wheat understanding that Kilmer no longer recognised the country – something I’ve felt when returning to Japan after a long absence, albeit nowhere near the 20-odd years of Kilmer’s character. I later realised his comments may have been directed at the audience, reminding them that Japan was not the feudal culture they might imagine if all they’d ever seen was Seven Samurai.
Kilmer’s ties to the yakuza are long-winded: during the Occupation, he came into contact with Eiko Tanaka (Keiko Kishi), who had lost her family in the firebombing of Tokyo. She developed a relationship with Kilmer that fell apart when her brother, Ken, returned from the Phillipines where he’d remained even after the fighting had stopped. Ken Tanaka felt he owed Kilmer a debt for taking care of Eiko, one that he could not repay, and its this debt that Kilmer hopes to exploit to get Tanner’s daughter back from a rival yakuza group.
Non-Japanese movies set in Japan, or heavily featuring Japanese culture, can be problematic for any number of reasons, ranging from indulging in openly racist cliches to simply getting basic factual information wrong. The Yakuza is no documentary, but it manages to get by without being too offensive – though I feel like it’s probably responsible for any number of tropes in Western culture about Japan, especially with the heavy emphasis on yubitsume (finger removal) and slightly muddled conversations about giri (obligation). One sequence in particular felt like they were simply piling on as much Japan as possible as the camera pans slowly across a group of yakuza playing with hanafuda cards, taking in a kakubin whiskey bottle, and pulling back to show a traditional pothook over an irori firepit. A lot of the details feel authentic, or at least no more mythologised than the Japanese would self-mythologise in their own contemporary films, though there are some more bizarre moments of either poetic license or magical thinking, like when someone insists Tanaka has to kill Tono, the rival boss, with a sword for some reason (which is probably just to set up an action sequence where Kilmer carries guns and Tanaka a katana). The film skirts a little close to some ‘inscrutable Asian’ stereotypes when it comes to the motivations of Eiko and Ken Tanaka, but it also manages to feature Kilmer and Tanaka as equals, mostly avoiding a White Saviour trope where Kilmer alone would sweep in to kill the evil yakuza and save the day.
The different American characters are also interesting, representing a kind of cross-section of expats and travellers. There’s Kilmer, fluent enough in Japanese to converse with Eiko and otherwise get by in Japan, but without demonstrating the Japanophile obsession of Wheat, with his house full of antique swords, guns, and other cultural paraphernalia. Then there’s Dusty (Richard Jordan), younger and inexperienced with Japan, but quickly demonstrating a familiar kind of infatuation (in one more cringeworthy moment, he watches Eiko’s daughter Hanako perform a kind of tea ceremony and intones, “I could watch you do that all day.”)
I went into The Yakuza sceptical but for the most part, it won me over. It’s an accessible foray into the yakuza movie tropes shared by some of its Japanese contemporaries, and it’s as interesting getting an outsider’s view of ‘70s Japan as it is seeing it from the inside in a movie like Cops vs. Thugs. Likewise, it’s fascinating getting a taste of how Japan might have been perceived internationally in that era. With the exception of a slightly overwrought sword fight late in the film it also has some surprisingly strong action sequences, particularly an encounter that takes place in Wheat’s house. So while The Yakuza is no replacement for Japanese cinema, I feel it’s well worth checking out.
The Yakuza / ザ・ヤクザ
Director: Sydney Pollack
Japanese Release Date: 21st December 1974 / US Release Date: 15th March 1975
Version Watched: 112 min (HMV Premier Collection Blu-Ray)