A-Ron’s Essential Cinema Presents: The Yakuza (1974)

A-Ron’s Great Cinema Presents: Oscar winning Director Sydney Pollack’s 1974 crime thriller “The Yakuza”. Starring Robert Mitchum and Ken Takakura, with a screenplay written by two of cinemas best screenwriters Paul Schrader and Robert Towne. “The Yakuza” lies not only with its sharp script, expert direction, great acting from it’s two lead stars. Sydney Pollack directs a film that is completely out of his wheelhouse with a gritty, visceral, violent film with uncompromising visuals, that give the picture a gripping atmosphere. When released in theaters, it became a box office bomb and has since gained a cult following. But for me it’s a much greater film than just being a “cult” film and it’s the best work of director Sydney Pollack’s career. “The Yakuza” had screenplay battles, moved around different filmmakers and lead actors. Including Martin Scorsese, Robert Aldrich and actors Lee Marvin and Robert Redford. Sydney Pollack’s artistry as a director shines through in every shot and sound choice. His action sequences and final show-down are impressive, graceful and visceral. Especially considering he isn’t an action or fight sequence director. “The Yakuza” is a stone cold classic, not to be missed.

Released in 1974, “The Yakuza” has everything to be a box office powerhouse, but legendary screenwriter Paul Schrader says the reception to the film was “Disastrous. It cost five million to make and brought back maybe a million and a half”. Despite it’s lackluster initial release, the film has since gained a cult following. For me it’s a much greater film than just a “cult” film and it’s the best work of director Sydney Pollack’s career. 

“The Yakuza” lies not only with its sharp script, expert direction, great acting from it’s stars Robert Mitchum and Ken Takakura. It’s gritty and violent uncompromising visuals give the picture a gripping atmosphere, but also played a part in the historical and cultural role at the time of its release. Being the first film on Japanese crime and social environment, produced by Western studios. “The Yakuza” broke the ice and opened up the Far-Eastern culture to our world.

Robert Mitchum is Harry Kilmer, a middle-aged retired detective, with a complicated, bittersweet past in Japan. When his businessman friend (Brian Keith) has his daughter kidnapped in Tokyo by the Yakuza, he asks Kilmer, who has connections in the underworld from his time as an MP there after WW2, to fly there and try to arrange her release. Kilmer is reluctant, but willing to do so – not only to aid his friend, but also for the chance to meet once again with Eiko (Kishi Keiko), the woman he loved during his time there. 

Kilmer knows that he will have to get in contact with her estranged brother Ken (Ken Takakura), who, upon returning home, was outraged by his sister’s affair with a former enemy, eventually becoming a member of the Yakuza. When Eiko constantly refused to marry him, Kilmer decided to return to the USA,  buying her a coffee shop as a parting gift. He finds that Japan has changed since he was last there (it has been modernised), and that all he thought he knew about his favour for his friend, and the relationships between Ken, Eiko and himself are not as they seem.

Veteran screenwriter Paul Schrader (“Taxi Driver”, “Raging Bull”, “Light Of Day”) penned the script for “The Yakuza” with his brother Leonard (earned an Academy Award nomination for the screenplay he wrote for the film “Kiss of the Spider Woman”), a Japanophile who fled to Japan in order to avoid being drafted to Vietnam. Leonard worked as a teacher of English Literature in Kyoto, but frequently found himself with nothing to do when radical students shut down the campus and Leonard Schrader had ended up spending a lot of time in yakuza-run bars, while spending time with the Yamaguchi, the most powerful Yakuza family in the area. He had also been watching yakuza films and been impressed by the presence of Ken Takakura and the rituals involved.

His intention of writing a book on the experience was halted by the persistence of Paul Schrader, who was eager to succeed in Hollywood. Paul had convinced him to help him turn the story into a screenplay. He thought there was an interesting film to be made about a Westerner who became involved in the yakuza to such an extent he would “make that ultimate sacrifice that is so foreign to a Westerner. That is the premise we started out on, trying to create a plot that would result in that situation”.

Paul Schrader had taken the idea to co-producer Mark Hamilburg, who liked it and paid for the brothers to write it. They spent two months watching films, in particular Toei films at a cinema in Los Angeles. “By the time I started writing, I was thinking like a Toei screenwriter,” says Schrader. They wrote the script in an apartment in Venice over a month, between thanksgiving and Christmas. They wrote the screenplay in eight weeks and went through three different drafts.

Paul Schrader had gotten an advance of $5,000 from his agent, Robin French, and French had gone around Hollywood’s dinner parties bidding up the screenplay, which Paul described as “The Godfather” with Bruce Lee. It worked so well that a bidding war had started, and offers for their services were abundant.

Schrader says word about the script were positive and was said that, “it was going to be a hot item: the intensity with which people became interested was clear”. Schrader knew he was incapable of handling a high level auction, so he went to his agent Robin French, to handle the auction. French had the idea to not accept any offers for five or six weeks, and once the auction began, the highest of the reported sixteen bids was from John Calley at Warner Bros for a cool, unheard of $325,000.

Schrader later reflected:

“It’s hard to see now, looking back at a film which completely flopped, but it was a very commercial idea. It had a lot of commercial hooks plus a strong love story, rich characters, and an “in” theme. It seemed to have all the elements for a rich, commercial action romance”. 

Paul Schrader and French took 40% of the money, while Leonard Schrader took only 20% and Paul insisted Leonard only received a ‘story by’ credit. Paul’s other agent, Michael Hamilburg, received a co-producer credit. This was the beginning of a stormy relationship between the two brothers that would get even worse in the aftermath of their fourth and final collaboration together, after which they ceased talking to each other. Paul later expressed regret over his treatment of Leonard.

Interestingly, legendary Martin Scorsese had read the script for “The Yakuza”, but at that point he was coming off 1973’s “Mean Streets”. He was not the ‘Tiffany’ director that the studio wanted, according to Paul Schrader wanted. Schrader had written Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver”, before “The Yakuza”. The pair would later collaborate on “Raging Bull” (1980), “The Last TemptationOf Christ” (1988) and “Bringing Out The Dead” (1999).

Warner Bros has then chosen, Sydney Pollack to direct. Schrader says that Pollack wanted rewrites, notably a “softening” of the Harry character (played by Robert Mitchum). Schrader says “I was fired, because I was unable to write what Sydney wanted. Sydney and I did not get along well, and he needed someone of his own age, whose work he respected, for feedback”. Pollack then brought on the great Robert Towne, who was working on the script to “Chinatown”. Towne who later went on to write screenplays for “Days Of Thunder” and “Shampoo”, was hired to make “The Yakuza” a film  more about ideas and not violence and believed that the spine of the film was about keeping promises. 

It’s funny that Towne was hired to not make the film about “violence”, see as how it’s filled with violent sequences. Even famed film critic Roger Ebert had expressed concern over the level of violence: “it’s for audiences that have grown accustomed over the last few years to buckets of blood, disembowelments and severed hands flying through the air. It’s very violent, and the fact that the violence has been choreographed by a skilled director like Sidney Pollack, just makes it all the more extreme.”

“The Yakuza” has the look, feel and the strong violence of a Sam Peckinpah (“The Wild Bunch”, “Straw Dogs”, “The Getaway”) film. Not one of the filmmaking style of Sydney Pollack. Coming off from directing the Robert Redford hit “The Way We Were”. Pollack was, an odd choice to direct a thriller with more than it’s fair share of action, visceral violence and a film exploring the very unique Japanese culture and subculture of the Japanese Yakuza. 

Sydney Pollack known as an actor, producer and director. Has contributed in giving us some of Hollywood’s great films, including: “Tootsie”, “The Firm”, Random Hearts” and “The Interpreter”. While the violence is something very different for Pollack, it still contains a lot of themes that his previous films have always been concerned with. Such as characters under great duress and trying to comprehend the situation they are in. Just look at Tom Cruise in 1993’s “The Firm” or Robert Redford in the excellent “Three Days Of The Condor”. Robert Mitchum’s character in “The Yakuza” is a similar character. 

Robert Redford and Barbra Streisand, were a couple in “The Way We Were”, who were striving to respect and love each other despite very different worldviews. Mitchum and Ken Takakura are essentially the couple in “The Yakuza”, who have to learn how to respect and continue their friendship despite coming from very different cultures and different worldviews. Pollack’s films like “Jeremiah Johnson” and “Out Of Africa”, which won him Best Director and Best Picture Oscars. Even the cross-dressing comedy “Tootsie”, all concern characters trying to adapt to new, challenging lifestyles and learning about themselves as they do.

Before Sydney Pollack, the original director was Robert Aldrich (“The Dirty Dozen”), famed for his brutal, macho worldview, and if he hadn’t been replaced at Robert Mitchum’s behest, a Hollywood version of a Japanese ‘B’ gangster thriller wouldn’t have been too far off in what we would have gotten. 

Lee Marvin was originally scheduled to star when Robert Aldrich was attached to direct. Robert Mitchum, who was coming off of the excellent crime drama “The Friends Of Eddie Coyle”, had replaced Marvin and replacement director Sydney Pollack was chosen for the directors chair. Charles Bronson and William Holden were also considered by the studio for the lead. Pollack briefly considered replacing Mitchum with Robert Redford for the lead role. 

Redford who was a frequent collaborator with Pollack. As a filmmaker Pollock’s greatest films came in his collaborations with Redford. They did six films together: “3 Days Of The Condor”, “Out Of Africa”, “The Way We Were”, “Jeremiah Johnson”, “The Electric Horseman” and “Havana”. I would have loved to have seen Redford in the role.

Aldrich later called it “one of the few pictures I really wanted to make. It was a terrible script, I thought, but a sensational idea. I said, ‘If I’m going to make this picture, I’m going to turn this script upside down.’ I saw it one particular way, and Paul didn’t see it that way”. 

Aldrich thought his view might have prevailed if Lee Marvin had been cast in the lead, but Marvin disagreed with Warner Brothers over the size of the actor’s fee. Instead they cast Robert Mitchum. After Mitchum had the day in replacing Aldrich. The director said “I really considered him my friend, and I admired him. I think he’s a brilliant actor, but a strange, convoluted guy. I knew I wasn’t his favorite director, but I never really knew he disliked me. Too bad. I think it was possible to make a marvelous movie out of Yakuza”. 

Schrader felt the casting of Mitchum, which he was “very pleased with”, had hurt the movie at the box office and if Redford had played the role “we probably would have made money”. Schrader also had felt that Sydney Pollack “directed against the grain of the script. I wrote a violent, underworld film about blood, duty, and obligation. He made a sort of rich, romantic, transcultural film. Either of those films would be interesting if fully realized, but the final product fell between those two stools; neither film was made. It didn’t satisfy the audience that came to see the hard gangster world, and it didn’t satisfy the Sydney audience, which came to see some poetic realism”. 

Pollack says that 95% of the picture was filmed in Japan, within Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto. Only the opening scene filmed in the U.S. (in Malibu). Pollack used many Japanese crew members for the shoot, and even a Japanese lighting cameraman, Okazaki Kozo who gave a pastel look to the film, in creating a mood of regret and splendid use of the widescreen frame that have become assets to the film. 

Pollack remarked in interviews on complications of filming in Japan, using Japanese crews and technicians, and adopting techniques and practices of Japanese filmmaking. Beyond language barriers, there were creative approaches that he synthesized into the film for being appropriate for the subject matter.

The Japanese characters are all played by Japanese actors and the narrative places equal emphasis on the American and Japanese characters. This gives the film authenticity, which is complemented by a screenplay that shows real respect, interest and sensitivity towards Japanese culture. Honor is shown in the film to be an important ideal to uphold in Japanese society, and it’s fascinating to see how it affects the narrative, bringing twists and turns that keep the film compelling, and illuminating in what it teaches one about Japanese culture. 

In order to maintain honor, sometimes sacrifices have to be made, things left unsaid and drastic actions to be taken. Nobody is placed above honor, and it’s something Harry (played by Mitchum) comes to learn by the end of the picture. The film is quite perceptive about the nature of the Japanese people. Leonard Schrader understands Japanese people and Japanese culture, and Paul Schrader, Robert Towne and Sydney Pollack obviously see great value and interest in them too. It’s a great collaboration, by not just them but also the actors, especially Robert Mitchum and Ken Takakura. 

Although the title of the film promises a full fledged gangster film, this is really more in line with a Hollywood version of a samurai picture, crime thriller, romance drama and gangster film. Takakura using a ‘katana’ in the action scenes is a nod to the new genre’s debt to the samurai film. “The Yakuza” is essentially, all of the above genres, just punctuated by sudden, explosive, exciting violent action sequences. The sight of Mitchum with a shotgun and Takakura with a katana, cutting a swathe through the bad guys is a sight one can never forget. 

The legacy of “The Yakuza” is also evident in Ridley Scott’s excellent 1989 picture, “Black Rain” (this would make a great companion to this film). Michael Douglas played an L.A. cop who learns about honor and self respect from Ken Takakura’s rigid, incorruptible Osaka cop. This channels well with Mitchum and Ken Takakura in “The Yakuza”. 

The film is a highpoint in the careers of all those involved, and while I’m a huge fan of Sydney Pollack and his films. “The Yakuza” is the best film he has directed and manages to be a film that reflects the concerns of a group of individualistic talents in the two Schraders, Towne and Pollack. It’s one of the few Hollywood films to treat Japanese culture with sensitivity, respect and most importantly, a sense of interest. For Robert Mitchum, it’s one of his best later performances, and the script pushes him to reveal his grace, subtlety and generosity as an actor. 

Both Schraders went on to further explore their interest in the fates of loners and/ or outsiders in society, something evident here in their first filmed screenplay. Robert Towne would continue his interest in exploring loyalty between friends and difficult or doomed romances in various films such as “Tequila Sunrise” and “The Two Jakes”. 

Pollack, who passed away in 2008, had continued to make films about characters under duress, often in foreign or alien situations or environments. “The Yakuza” is a hidden gem, and a great piece of 70’s gritty crime films. It’s a useful primer for the fascinating, exciting, intoxicating genres that is known as ‘yakuza-eiga’, one of Japan’s greatest contributions to world cinema.

On the U.S. film prints, the credits list the Japanese actors names in the Japanese format, with the surname first followed by the given name.

Writer and director Quentin Tarantino is an admirer of the film saying: “for the last time as a lead, Mitchum was vibrantly alive…Takakura Ken’s powerhouse performance, at the height of his fame, in this Hollywood Yakuza flick, seems even more of a triumph…the film’s final coda, “The Finger cutting scene”, is for me, one of the great endings of any movie of its era. And arguably Mitchum’s single greatest acting moment on film (as long as some fuckwad in the cinema doesn’t laugh during it)”. Well said Tarantino…well said. 

Sydney Pollack said in an interview of “The Yakuza”. “I’m really proud of that picture. It still gets a lot of play at revival houses and cinematheques. I ended up having to stage every bit of the action sequences. I had no help. I got there and I was like ‘Where’s the telescoping swords you use in the sword fights?’ They said “We don’t have telescoping swords. We just use a bamboo sword with tin foil over it.” I said, ‘Well, how do you guys do all those great sword fights in your movies?’ Mitchum says (imitating Pollack) “Pay ’em”. 

All the fight coordinators were just terrible. Warner Bros. was very nervous about the picture, so I made a deal with the number three studio as opposed to the best one, a place called Tohei Studios, which was known for really cheesy B-pictures. It all worked out in the end, I guess. I haven’t seen that picture for 25 years. I don’t see any of my pictures once I’m done with them”. 

That’s too bad because Pollock has made some great films, especially “The Yakuza”, which is his best work and my favorite work of his. “The Yakuza” is a visionary effort and matching an aged and rugged Robert Mitchum with the ultimate Japanese gangster actor Ken Takakura. “The Yakuza” is a piece of masculine cinematic heaven. 

Sydney Pollack’s artistry as a director shines through in every shot and sound choice. Keeping the guns loud, the swords silent (unless they are clanging together in a fight) and his action sequences and final show-down are impressive, graceful and visceral. Especially considering he isn’t an action or fight sequence director. “The Yakuza” is a stone cold classic, not to be missed.

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About Aron Medeiros

Aron Medeiros
Aron Medeiros lives on the beautiful island of Maui. He is a member of The Hawaii Film Critics Society, movie critic for Maui Watch, a commentator and cast member of the NerdWatch pod cast. He is a 2003 graduate from King Kekaulike High School. His favorite film of all time is “Back To The Future”. He has worked at Consolidated Kaahumanu Theaters for nearly 13 years as a Sales Associate and making his way up to Assistant Manager. He has loved movies since he was a young boy, learning about movies from his Grandfather and being self taught.

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