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 serves 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 (Kwaidan) is radiant as Mitchum’s old flame. Brian Keith (The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming) has a few good moments as Mitchum’s old friend. The cast also includes Richard Jordan (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.