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One of the great films of the Seventies,
This review is from: The Yakuza (DVD)
The Yakuza is one of the great films of the seventies. Although this didn't make much noise in the seventies (despite a truly surreal promotional gimmick, `Join the Yakuza Set' tattoo transfers!), it has held up a lot better than he plethora of seventies thrillers that swamped it at the time.
Belonging to that subgenre of Americans-in-Japan thrillers (Fuller's House of Bamboo, Scott's Black Rain, Frankenheimer's The Challenge), The Yakuza is a film about the price of honor and about people who face their responsibilities. The film could almost be called `giri' - Japanese for obligation or the burden hardest to bear. Richard Jordan's bodyguard may start out wiseguy ("That can work both ways. If you ain't alive tomorrow, he don't owe you s***.") but even he lives up to his moral obligations when discharged from them by Mitchum. All of the plot developments are a result of obligations, with the characters following through as per their personal codes of honor, taken to the ultimate extreme in Mitchum's final apology to Takakura Ken for destroying both his past and his future.
The hook might be that Mitchum returns to Japan to help secure the release of an old army friend's daughter from a Yakuza clan and in the process reopening old wounds with former lover Kishi Keiko and her brother Takakura Ken, but the emotional undercurrents are as important as the plot developments, with the film's criminal double-dealing mirrored in the myriad personal betrayals he is as he is forced to face the fact that he has always confused his friends with his enemies.
It is not a film that wears its emotions on its sleeve, and is all the more affecting for that the awkwardness of Mitchum's meeting with Ken and the hesitancy of his reunion with Keiko (and the subtle re-enactment of the old photos in her album) - everything is in the pauses and between the lines. It's these emotional undercurrents that make it stand up to repeated viewings.
The early seventies was a last golden age for the eternally under-rated Mitchum, with outstanding performances in The Friends of Eddie Coyle, Farewell My Lovely and Ryan's Daughter, and this is one of his best. His `strange stranger' and Takakura Ken's `man who never smiles' ("He's been unhappy ever since he lost the war. I keep trying to tell him it's not his fault but he won't take my word for it") is a match made in casting heaven. Their screen presence is remarkably similar, exuding a lifetime of world-weariness and personal loss that attracts both empathy and respect for their characters. Both give superbly understated performances, with the great Takakura Ken getting his best English-language role to date.
Jordan gives a nicely unassuming performance in the juvenile lead, making the most of his romantic subplot by showing the least, and there's an added poignancy to his fate since the actor's death. Indeed, all the performances are superb, with the emphasis on being rather than acting.
The screenplay as filmed is a terrific mixture of the commercial and the cerebral. Where most modern American thrillers are driven by indiscriminate violence ("In America, a guy cracks up he opens a window and kills a few strangers. Here, a guy cracks up, he closes the window and kills himself," observes Jordan), here events and participants are interconnected. All of the main characters are friends or surrogate family, and although Robert Towne was brought in to up the gangster element from the Shraders' (Leonard and Paul) more philosophical approach (the differences can be found in Leonard Schrader's novelization), he knows enough to keep it personal. It's witty too, without being condescending or resorting to the pre-kill one-liners so prevalent today that divorce the audience from the consequences and ramifications of violence. Only a very dialog-heavy bit of exposition about the backstory between Mitchum and Keiko feels a tad clumsy.
Sydney Pollack's sensitivity to the material is remarkable. There's an unshowy adventurousness to his direction that he hasn't displayed since. In particular, the action scenes are extraordinary without ever straying from the credible, a disciplined mixture of stillness and sudden violence and a complete departure in style for the director.
Warners' new DVD is long overdue, and very welcome indeed. Extras are a little thin - a very good 19-minute promotional featurette from 1974, Promises to Keep, and an audio commentary from Sydney Pollack - and it's disappointing that the deleted scenes from the longer 123-minute version of the film are not included.