Ex-G.I. Harry Kilmer (Robert Mitchum) returns to Japan at the behest of his friend George Tanner (Brian Keith), whose daughter has been kidnapped by yakuza as payback for a business deal gone awry. Harry reconnects with his old flame, Eiko Tanaka (Keiko Kishi), with whom he sired a now-grown up daughter named Hanako (Christina Kokubo), hoping she can trace her brother Ken Tanaka (Ken Takakura), a legendary figure in the yakuza underworld. Ken has mixed feelings about Harry, torn between resenting him for shacking up with his sister and being obliged to him for saving her life. Alongside young gunman Dusty (Richard Jordan), Harry and Ken rescue Tanner’s daughter from the yakuza hang headed by Tono (Eiji Okada, of Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1959)) but find themselves tangled in a web of deceit and long-buried secrets.
With his script for The Yakuza, Paul Schrader finally cured himself of his taste for gun metal (seriously, look it up) and launched the Hollywood career that begat Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980) and American Gigolo (1980). Co-written with his brother Leonard Schrader - who later penned the Japanese sci-fi/comedy/thriller The Man Who Stole the Sun (1980) - and featuring input from Robert Towne, the film is part gangster yarn, part lecture on Japanese culture. Schrader weaves something of a potpourri from bits of classic film noir, Zen philosophy, martial arts clichés and samurai lore, but his skill as a writer means this catches the spirit of old yakuza movies while concocting something palatable to mainstream tastes. Coming one year after Enter the Dragon (1973), Warner Bros. must of wanted to latch onto the next potentially big craze from the Far East, though the film proved more of a cult hit than a blockbuster. Schrader and Towne’s literate script wisely casts Ken, not as wacky oriental sidekick, but as Harry’s equal. The film is respectful of Japanese culture though perhaps reverent to a fault. The yakuza are gangsters after all.
By the mid-seventies, the yakuza world as depicted in films like this was something of an anachronism even in Japanese movies. Toei Films, who leant their studio facilities and experienced crew to the Hollywood visitors, had moved on to the amoral, ultra-violent yet altogether more truthful “jitsuroku eiga” made by Kinji Fukasaku, movies like Modern Yakuza - Outlaw Killer (1972) and especially the eight-part Fight Without Honour series (1973-79). The Yakuza is really a throwback, almost an elegy, to the “ninkyo eiga” with their decent, self-sacrificing yakuza heroes and codes of chivalry and honour. Schrader and Towne draw canny parallels between the romantic fatalism of Hollywood noir and the melancholy world of ninkyo eiga. For while Harry and Eiko’s frustrated romance does move, this is ultimately a story about atonement and of respect growing between two men.
Mitchum is superb of course and takes to this sort of material like a duck to water. He is fittingly paired with the greatest ninkyo eiga star of all: Ken Takakura, whose soft-spoken stoicism made him as big an icon as Clint Eastwood in his native Japan. He resurfaced in two further Hollywood movies: as an upright cop in Ridley Scott’s Black Rain (1989) and a baseball coach in the muddled comedy Mr. Baseball (1993) but did his best work in Japanese and Chinese cinema (John Woo cites Ken Takakura movies as an inspiration), working well into the Noughties.
The film is well-acted by all and beautifully photographed by D.P.’s Duke Callaghan and Kozo Okazaki, whose lighting adds to the pervading wistful, melancholic tone. Dave Grusin’s music is also excellent and well-used throughout the striking title sequence. This is not an action film but what set-pieces there are stylishly handled by Sidney Pollack, though things do meander a bit which is a reoccurring problem with his thrillers. Pollack - whom Mitchum himself brought in to replace Robert Aldrich - is alleged to have clashed with his Japanese crew, but the locals truly adored Mitchum. Conversely, while making the Hong Kong produced thriller The Amsterdam Kill (1977), Mitchum got on so badly with his Chinese crew he came to suspect they wanted him dead.