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 ironic that the films that inspired me to write about Japanese cinema aren’t yet covered here, but it was Kinji Fukasaku’s original, sprawling Battles Without Honour and Humanity series that turned me around on Japanese film and cemented my love of yakuza on the silver screen. After the success of those films, Toei apparently felt the same way: they wanted Fukasaku to create more sequels. Instead, the director created a new three-film anthology – different stories, different locations, and different characters, but with many of the same actors from his original series. The first film, New Battles Without Honour and Humanity (1974), walks a fine line between retelling the events of the film that started it all and being a brand new experience.
Watching the first Lady Snowblood, I found it a fun, throwback exploitation movie with a satisfying take on the rampage of revenge trope. It was also my introduction to Meiko Kaji, an ice cold chanbara beauty, categorically not playing a damsel in distress or love interest; in other words, playing a role quite unlike most Japanese women on film. There was something indirectly subversive about a woman slicing through the gang who’d wronged her family, and in Lady Snowblood 2: Love Song of Vengeance (1974), I was looking forward to seeing that subversive streak taken a step further.