Q.V. Hough

A Poetic Absence of Presence: Sydney Pollack’s ‘The Yakuza’ (1974)

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I was scrolling the Warner Archive Instant library for Robert Mitchum films and came across a bit of early 70s cinematic magic: Sydney Pollack’s The Yakuza. The 1974 neo-noir was the first screenplay written by film critic Paul Schrader, who would team up with Martin Scorsese only a couple years later for one of the best films of all time, Taxi Driver. Aesthetically, The Yakuza improves with each act by way of cinematographer Kôzô Okazaki’s high angle/low angle shots, Schrader’s exploration of post-World War II Japanese traditions and the present but painfully absent character stylings of Robert Mitchum’s Harry Kilmer and Ken Takakura’s Tanaka Ken.

The retired Detective Kilmer comes face-to-face with an old flame when he travels to Japan to help a former Marine buddy (Brian Keith). Thirty years prior, Kilmer fell in love with a local named Eiko (Keiko Kishi,) but their romance was squashed upon the return of the woman’s brother Ken (Takakura) — a soldier in the Japanese Imperial Army — who was less than thrilled to find an American poking his “nose” around. However, Mr. Kilmer had saved the life of Eiko’s daughter Hanako (Christina Kokubo), which put Ken in a rather difficult position given the Japanese traditions of honor. And so, Ken entered a life of crime and Harry left for the U.S. to become a detective. Only one of them knew the truth about a mystery that would haunt both men for different reasons.

When Harry ultimately returns to Japan, he finds Eiko still single and working in the same bar that he purchased decades before. The mission: to find his pal’s kidnapped daughter. First, the weary Harry must reacquaint himself with Eiko’s estranged brother Ken. An elderly American man in Tokyo: what can go wrong? Usually nothing, unless said man deliberately messes with The Yakuza!

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When I came across The Yakuza, I had been looking for the noir/Mitchum classic Out of the Past. And that was initially part of the charm that endeared me to Sydney Pollack’s film. I was expecting to watch a decent production with a little old school bravado from Mr. Mitchum. Early on, I found myself chuckling (in a good way) at dialogue such as “Goddammit, I’m getting too old for this” and the star’s dramatic head turn while spouting “Did he say that?” But the film’s tone made a poetic turn halfway through and my appreciation was elevated to admiration once the Japanese traditions begin to affect Harry Kilmer. You can’t just kill somebody. You have to kill them the “right” way. Furthermore, Kilmer learns that his counterparts may kill with kindness even if it causes them a lifetime of personal suffering.

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The interactions between Mitchum and Takakura offer a jolting look at man’s acceptance of grief, but the technical aspects of The Yakuza transform the film to a higher level. The tone of Pollack’s battle scenes are shockingly good thanks to the rushed (but not frantic) editing and the camera’s exploration of the setting. During moments of Japanese tradition, the camera sits low as if to say, “this is reality,” but once Ken picks up a sword, the camera says “anything is possible.” Viewers may peer over the shoulder of Ken as he studies the enemy, and Pollack even offers a bird’s-eye view. It’s like a video game that anticipates the need for the “B” button and a different angle.

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Sure, there are a few moments that don’t quite resonate in 2015 (Musical Performance: “A Yakuza pays his debts”), but Pollack’s directorial techniques along with Schrader’s dialogue never become overbearing. In fact, The Yakuza demands a second watch one the final goodbyes have been honorably delivered. – Q.V. Hough

The Yakuza is available to watch on Warner Archive Instant.

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