Director Sydney Pollack took a lot of critical flack for shoehorning love stories into movies that couldn’t organically contain them, as if he wanted to sprinkle the fairy dust of his breakthrough hit The Way We Were (1973) onto every subsequent project. It’s a fair complaint, especially when one considers a Pollack film such as The Yakuza, which suffers from narrative bloat—the film’s romantic subplots are handled with intelligence and taste, but they’re borderline superfluous. That said, it seems ungallant to gripe about a director who endeavored to invest all of his pictures with as much grown-up human feeling as possible. So perhaps it’s best to regard The Yakuza as an embarrassment of riches: Nearly everything in the movie is interesting, even though Pollack regularly forgets what sort of film he’s trying to make.
At its best, the picture is a tough gangster story with an exotic setting; at its worst, The Yakuza is a sensitive drama about a man in late life reconnecting with a lost love. So while action funs may find the touchy-feely stuff dull, and while viewers more interested in the heartfelt material may be turned off by the bloody bits, watching the disparate elements fight for dominance is fascinating.
Based on an original script by Leonard Schrader, who lived in Japan for some time, and his celebrated brother, Taxi Driver screenwriter Paul Schrader, The Yakuza went through the usual Pollack-supervised rewrite routine, getting a credited overhaul from A-lister Robert Towne (as well as, presumably, uncredited tinkering by others). The convoluted story revolves around Harry Kilmer (Robert Mitchum), an aging WWII vet asked to perform a favor for his old friend, George Tanner (Brian Keith). George has gotten into trouble with the Yakuza (Japanese Mafia), so he needs Harry, who knows Japanese culture, to smooth out relations. Harry travels to Japan with George’s hotheaded young associate, Dusty (Richard Jordan), and coordinates with a former Yakuza member, Ken Tanaka (Ken Takakura). Harry’s crew stumbles into a complicated war between American and Japanese criminals, and also between various Yakuza factions. Meanwhile, Harry reconnects with Eiko (Keiko Kishi), the Japanese woman he loved while he was stationed in Japan during WWII. Both obviously want to pick up where they left off, but their relationship is complicated by ancient traditions and surprising family ties.
Describing the plot doesn’t do The Yakuza any favors, since the story doesn’t “work” in a conventional sense; the narrative is far too muddled and tonally inconsistent. Nonetheless, The Yakuza offers rewards for patient viewers. The performances are uniformly poignant, with Mitchum’s world-weariness setting the downbeat tone. Jordan and Keith complement him with macho brashness; Kishi and Takakura are quietly soulful; and Herb Edelman, playing an old friend of Harry’s, offers a sweet quality of peacenik anguish. James Shigeta is terrific, too, in a handful of scenes as Ken’s tightly wound brother. Melding his signature classicism with uniquely Japanese textures, such as highly formalized framing, Pollack and cinematographer Kôzô Okazaki fill the screen with artistry and color. Plus, the movie introduced America viewers to a bloody Yakuza ritual that will linger with you long after the movie ends—ouch!
The Yakuza: GROOVY