There are instances when an actor, or director, tries something so different and foreign just to stretch themselves in their film craft… or to get a paycheck. Occasionally, the attempt really isn’t that unusual — it just has that appearance. Those that try may get rewarded for the endeavor… but only sometimes. More often than not, their daring efforts will garner a harrumph from critics or be ignored by the movie-going public.
Any combination of which guarantees the movie the actor/director put their time and sweat (and sometimes soul) into will quickly come and go when released to theaters. Nowadays, this isn’t as bad of a deal considering DVD sales are as large, or larger, to a studio’s individual movie returns (following an accelerated release to disc, of course, ‘cuz it bombed at the box office). Those sales help to negate the bad bottom-line karma surrounding such a motion picture.
However, when this happened decades ago, movies simply slipped through the cracks and were consigned to oblivion. If it was a 70s film, and was lucky, it could start getting attention once more in the subsequent age of the VHS tape and the video rental store (itself just about relegated to history’s dustbin) that followed. That is, if the studio bothered to release it to the consumer market at all (a number never are). In my opinion, some of this pertain to a particular and unexpected neo noir from mid-decade: The Yakuza.
You can lay whatever praise for this little seen pearl of a movie at the feet of those who dared to take a chance with the material. One that was ahead of its time. Certainly, we’re talking about director Sydney Pollack and actor Robert Mitchum in what turned to be their only collaboration together. Add to this an ambitious screenplay written by Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver) and Robert Towne (Chinatown, Tequila Sunrise), along with a stellar, if disregarded, introduction of a Japanese movie star to U.S. audiences, Takakura Ken. It was a heady mix which was unfairly overlooked.
What made this film so different? Simply, it was an attempt to present the time-honored gangster genre film in a whole new way. That is, by introducing Japan’s equivalent to western audiences in a story that involved Americans and the organized crime clans known as the Yakuza. The story begins in what was contemporary Los Angeles. A business man (Brian Keith) seeks out his former WWII colleague, Harry Kilmer (Mitchum), to aid in the return of his daughter, now kidnapped by his unhappy business partner (who happens to be a Yakuza crime boss).
Naturally, this is complicated by returning to Japan and confronting a sore issue for Harry. The former occupation forces MP’s erstwhile lover Eiko (Keiko Kishi) will have to be involved. Her brother, Ken (you already guessed who, I know), a former successful gangster and indebted to Harry, will be the only in-road (as a go-between) toward settling this without bloodshed for the tasked American. As any good crime melodrama would have it, we all know this won’t come to pass, especially in a 70s neo noir.
Harry Kilmer: “Everywhere I look, I can’t recognize a thing.”
Oliver Wheat: “It’s still there. Farmers in the countryside may watch TV from their tatami mats and you can’t see Fuji through the smog, but don’t let it fool you. It’s still Japan and the Japanese are still Japanese.”
This little remembered Sydney Pollack film had a lot to overcome when it arrived. First, was its timing. Released in early 1975 in the U.S. (the film actually debuted December 1974 in Japan) when the initial martial arts film craze started to wane. The Yakuza must have appeared to some as another movie co-opted for the ‘Kung Fu’ movie movement of that decade, whether it had a big name director and actor associated with it or not. It wasn’t that.
This was a crime film.
What people failed to put together was this was at the center of a remarkable set of three crime pictures for Robert Mitchum. The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973) and Farewell, My Lovely (1975) bracket it. As well, few here at the time knew about the long-standing genre of gangster films in Japan, which had a tremendous history in and of themselves. From its early romanticized view of the ‘noble’ underworld characters, all the way to its later more realistic, hard-boiled style that paralleled Hollywood noir, as noted by author Mark Schilling in his well researched guide to Japanese gangster films.
Yet, that was exactly why the film was not so unusual for Pollack (someone known for his dramas) and substantially, of course, for Robert Mitchum. For me and others, if there was an actor you would associate with the film noir genre, it… was… Mitchum.
He was almost 60 when he made it, and he still carried off his role in what was a tribute to the (at that time) little known yakuza eiga. As I mentioned in a look-back review of the Dirty Dozen, I place Robert Mitchum in the rare company of male lead performers (along with Lee Marvin) who could effortlessly pull off their roles as tough, unpredictable, but ever so cool men on the big screen. Few actors could carry off weary and dangerous with that ease and assuredness — even fewer, could do it anywhere near that age like Mitchum did here.
Putting him together with someone as great as Takakura Ken was the film’s best attribute, too. Takakura made a career in Japan performing the analogous latter-day John Wayne roles, if that character operated on the other side of the law, that is. Though he had a surprising un-stereotypical supporting role in Robert Aldrich’s Too Late the Hero, this was his big intro to American audiences. In spite of the fact this film didn’t amass much attention, he made the most of it. Certainly enough for Ridley Scott to remember and use him in the key role for 1989’s Black Rain.
That his film character and Mitchum’s Kilmer didn’t much like each other, only made their pairing the better.
The Yakuza remains, even decades after I first saw it, a film worth viewing. Sure, the story does suffer somewhat from having to introduce and superficially explain concepts deep-rooted in Japanese culture. Then and now, that is part of the fascination for many of us (Paul and Leonard Schrader included) who find a distinct wonder with this insular Asian society. Still, the film was a hybrid of sorts. It has elements of the familiar (noir), but with an idealized take toward the Japanese film genre it wished to salute.
It was a mix that delivered more often than not. Japanese audiences and critics found the film “… culturally sensitive, if highly romanticized, take on contemporary gangs”, as noted by author Mark Schilling. If a bit absurd from their perspective. Our market simply ignored it, regrettably. Nevertheless, Robert Mitchum gave “one his best performance as the world-weary but still spry Harry Kilmer.” said Roger Ebert in his review. That, my friends, should never be missed or forgotten, in my opinion.
It’s too bad the marketing in the U.S. didn’t live up to the film’s story — the poster and tag line doesn’t cut it (pun intended). They would have done better following the U.K. promotion (it’s why I lead off with its poster graphic). Their’s said it best:
A man never forgets. A man pays his debts.
How very true.