The Yakuza (1974)


A retired American detective, Harry Kilmer (Robert Mitchum, The Night of the Hunter), finds more than he bargained for when he travels to Japan to look for his army pal’s daughter, who has been kidnapped by a local gang.

Reaction & Thoughts:

“Everywhere I look, I can’t recognize a thing.”

When I first read some years ago that writers Robert Towne and Paul Schrader had collaborated on this movie, I was ecstatic, and that’s because I love Towne’s Chinatown (1974) and Schrader’s American Gigolo (1980). They certainly didn’t disappoint me — The Yakuza is an elegiac neo-noir that conveys great depth of feeling.

Towne and Schrader’s screenplay is both poetic and gritty, with some philosophical musings thrown in for good measure. Director Sidney Pollack (Out of Africa) extracts every nuance out of the multi-layered script, which is cleverly constructed to highlight the intrinsic differences between traditionalism and modernism.

In a nutshell, The Yakuza is about honorable people trying to survive in a dishonorable world. The two main characters, an ex-policeman and an ex-gangster, have become breathing anachronisms. One American, the other Japanese, both men are symbols of a world long gone. We see these two old-school men, who live by a passé code of honor, having difficulty dealing with a new set of social and moral values.

The Yakuza is, however, too smart to simply praise one generation, or one culture, over another. The film underscores the shackles of tradition and modernity, and the pitfalls of generational attitudes. I can’t emphasize this point enough, the movie constantly invites the viewer to reflect about generational differences and cultural mores.

One thing I noticed about the movie, and a many other films of the era, is how good it is at creating a particular mood. The stylish cinematography by Kozo Okazaki (John Frankenheimer’s The Challenge) and Duke Callaghan (Conan the Barbarian) projects a sense of ennui beautifully. Dave Grusin’s (Pollack’s The Firm) languid music score reinforces the film’s combination of melancholia and modern angst.

The casting director also deserves endless praise. Robert Mitchum’s gorgeously saggy face expresses disillusionment eloquently. An older but no less effective Mitchum has this aura of dignity around him that requires no explanation. The same can be said of Ken Takakura (Black Rain), who radiates gravitas as Mitchum’s proud Japanese rival.

Veteran Japanese actress Keiko Kishi (Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan) is radiant as Mitchum’s ex-lover. Brian Keith (The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming) has a few good moments as Mitchum’s old pal. The cast also includes Richard Jordan (Michael Anderson’s Logan’s Run) as Mitchum’s henchman and Herb Edelman (TV’s The Golden Girls) as an American professor living in Japan. They’re all excellent.

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

The Yakuza is a seemingly forgotten movie, and that’s a pity because this is, in my opinion, one of the best thrillers of the ’70s. It’s a deliberately paced, but engrossing neo-noir movie that perceptively explores timeless themes of honor, masculinity, brotherhood, and love. In any event, this is a movie I strongly recommend to noir enthusiasts and Robert Mitchum fans. Color, 112 minutes, Rated R.


8 responses to “The Yakuza (1974)

  1. Fantastic, a top film pic to feature buddy. I tackled this one early in my first year of blogging. I gave it top all round score of 10/10. Absolutely loved it. Reading back I think I would of written a bit different now I got a slightly better at writing though I did like this bit..
    “Now that pace might be slow but don’t get you knickers in a twist, sit back and enjoy the build up because there are a few sweet pay offs, none more so than the end. Man it’s a set piece to make you wanna knock back half a bottle of sake to calm you down. ”

    Liked by 1 person

    • I just read your review, and we are in total agreement (we even picked similar screenshots!). Love your line, “it’s a set piece to make you wanna knock back half a bottle of sake to calm you down.” Great stuff! 🙂


  2. What a great line: “honorable people trying to survive in a dishonorable world.” Just with that line alone, I get a feel for what this movie’s about. That’s a struggle that’ll never end, will it? Wonderful cinematography that creates atmosphere and moody visual layers, I’m thinking, is a cherry on top. Engaging review!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. A classic of 70’s cinema at a time when maybe Mitchum’s box office pull was lagging. Too bad as it’s one of his best films if not THE best of the decade. Was also my intro to Takakura Ken who stands tall in Japanese cinema and rightly so. I think the film has more fans than we think as no one seems to diss it once they’ve seen it.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Mitchum is one of my favorites. Just one of the greats of all time. Pollack did so many fascinating films in the ’60s and ’70s. Nice review of this unique film.

    Liked by 1 person

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