The Yakuza (1974) (Warner Archive, Blu-ray) – Film critic turned screenwriter Paul Schrader put his passion for Japanese cinema and his insight into American genre movies into an original screenplay that he wrote with his brother, Leonard, and sold to Warner Bros. for a record payday that made the trade papers and gave Schrader a reputation as a rising star. The film, a knowing collision of American crime drama and Japanese gangster movie, was handed to Sydney Pollack (who had Robert Towne do rewrites). These are intelligent pros who never quite grasp Schrader’s insight into the codes of honor (both Japanese and American) celebrated in the film, or the collision of an old world respect and the modern disdain for those codes on both sides of the Pacific.
Robert Mitchum stars as Harry Kilmer, an American private eye who goes to Japan to rescue the daughter of a friend (Brian Keith). She has been kidnapped by Japanese gangsters and Harry calls in a debt of honor from Tanaka (Takakura Ken), a former Yakuza soldier. They hate each other—the reasons why are revealed by the end—but work together like a veteran partnership as they cut a swath through the Japanese underworld. Mitchum is like a modern Philip Marlowe in old age revisiting the past love that could not be, and however much he understands the Yakuza code he fights like the westerner he is. Where Tanaka takes up the traditional sword, Harry uses a gun because it’s what he’s good at. They don’t pretend that is any kind dishonor. Herb Edelman co-stars as an old friend who remained behind in Japan to marry and teach English and Richard Jordan is a young gunman sent to help Harry and becomes committed to the code of honor.
It’s a great idea that stumbles in the execution, Pollack fills the film with violent action and plenty of blood—dozens die in the search for the girl—but lacks both the grace and the ferocity of the Japanese gangster films it references and never seems to understand the romantic core of the warrior code that guides the heroes. The western romanticism, the slow dissolves, the clumsy cutting away to shots of explicit violence (as opposed to an elegant or aggressive approach) all show Pollack with engaging a concept rather than embracing the core of the material, and he paces it all deliberately, like a contemplation of an action movie with explosive moments. Think what it could have been in the hands of Frankenheimer, Siegel, or Aldrich, who in fact was to direct it with Lee Marvin in the lead. The performances are excellent and the mix of East and West interesting, but the direction fails to bring out the heart of the material, something more obvious now that so many classic Japanese gangster films have become available to American viewers.
The Blu-ray from Warner Archive looks great. It’s mastered from a new 2K scan and it keeps the image strong and stable; it features a lot of night scenes and the image quality is remains clear and strong throughout, a significant improvement over the previous DVD release. Carried over from the DVD is commentary by director Sidney Pollack and there is a vintage 20-minute featurette with behind-the-scenes footage.
The Yakuza (1975) [Blu-ray]