(director: Sydney Pollack; screenwriters: Paul Schrader/Robert Towne/story by Leonard Schrader; cinematographers: Duke Callaghan/Kôzô Okazaki; editors: Don Guidice/Thomas Stanford/Frederic Steinkamp; music: Dave Grusin; cast: Robert Mitchum (Harry Kilmer), Ken Takakura (Tanaka Ken), Brian Keith (George Tanner), Kishi Keiko (Eiko), Christina Kokubo (Hanako), James Shigeta (Goro), Herbert Edelman (Oliver Wheat), Richard Jordan (Dusty), Okada Eiji (Tono), Kyôsuke Machida (Kato), Go Eiji (Spider); Runtime: 112; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Sydney Pollack; Warner Bros.; 1974-Japan/USA)

It’s a different kind of crime film, an overlooked gem.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

An action soap opera film from the ’70s that doesn’t transcend that period, as it might be too slow moving for today’s standards and its story too much over-the-top to take seriously. Nevertheless it’s a top-rate thriller because of its evocative sword fights and its respectful homage to the honor system practiced by the organized Japanese crime families, known as the yakuza. The yakuza is a family mafia system that goes back a few hundred years, whereby the gangsters from this organization must abide by their samurai-like traditions. 

Sydney Pollack (“The Way We Were”/”The Scalphunters”) directs with an eye for touching the heart of his characters and of how their macho concept is taken so seriously. What he also gets right is getting out of Robert Mitchum arguably his best performance ever as the brooding Westerner transplanted into the old Japanese traditional ways, who can mix tenderness with brutality as he adapts to the Eastern culture and brings friendship to its highest tests. It also helps that the thriller is so superbly written by Robert Towne and Paul Schrader, from a story by Paul’s brother Leonard.

The film has fine location shots in Japan, giving it an air of authenticity, and is remembered fondly for its great climax pistols/sword dueling scene–one of the best ever action film climaxes.

Harry Kilmer (Robert Mitchum) was an American serviceman who served in Japan during the post-WWII occupation. For the last twenty years he has lived in the States and has worked as both a realtor and a private detective. During the time he has remained friends with some of his close GI buddies. One of those buddies, the opportunist George Tanner (Brian Keith), who remained in Tokyo as a gangster shipping magnate, contacts him after not seeing him for many years. When George comes to Malibu and tells Harry his teenage daughter has been kidnapped by the yakuza boss Tono (Okada Eiji) over a smuggling gun deal gone wrong (George says the crime boss only wants the guns, which are missing, and will not accept his money back), he pleads with Harry to go to Tokyo and rescue her with his old acquaintance Ken Tanaka (Ken Takakura, Japan’s top star in yakuza films), a former legendary yakuza and martial arts expert, who would do anything for Harry after he saved his sister Eiko (Kishi Keiko) and her daughter Hanako (Christina Kokubo) from starvation by using his army pay to buy the woman he had an affair with a coffee shop before leaving the country. George also has Harry take along the American gangster, his bodyguard, Dusty (Richard Jordan), for protection. In his stylized casual way, the aging Harry does the favor even if it’s against his better judgment.

Once in Tokyo, Dusty and Harry stay in the house of Harry’s former army buddy Oliver (Herbert Edelman), who remained in Tokyo as a college teacher. Though Oliver has an ample gun and knife collection, because of a severe medical condition, he can’t afford to get excited (even a chess game is too much for him), and leads a quiet life with his pet cat.
Harry has a warm reunion with his former lover and her grown daughter, now a teacher, who tells him she hasn’t seen her brother for years and he lives outside Tokyo running a martial-arts school. After contacting the taciturn and unsmiling Ken, we see that he will reluctantly agree to help Harry and accept the challenge as an obligation he feels he must do as a matter of honor. The honorable Ken lives his life according to the honor code, one that stipulates he must pay Harry back for helping his sister.

Harry will run into a series of deceits after his team rescues the girl from the kidnappers in a bloody shoot-out in the monastery where she was held, and in the process kills two of Tono’s men. The ambitious Tono will then meet with the slippery George and work out a deal where they can reunite, as George must rub out Harry while Tono will rub out Ken.

Long time secrets will be divulged, as Ken’s high-ranking yakuza older brother, Goro (James Shigeta), gets involved without getting involved in all the intrigue. He will let on startling secrets about why his brother has withdrawn to live a quiet life in the country.

The trio, of the two Americans and Ken, must then fight off the armies of George and Tono, as the action gets bloody.

There are also a number of pinky extractions used to prove a recognition for a previous mistake that can now honorably be forgiven when the pinky is given to the one who was previously betrayed.

It’s an engrossing movie. It works on many levels even if it might be hard to fully connect with a yakuza honor code for most Westerners. The film offers some exotic takes on Japan’s traditions and some insights between the face saving world of the East and the path of rugged individualism in the West.

It’s a different kind of crime film, an overlooked gem.

      Yakuza (1974)

REVIEWED ON 6/26/2020  GRADE: A-