Friday, July 20, 2012

Sydney Pollack: The Yakuza

Before I get started with The Yakuza, I should point out that two things have been very clear in the three films – They Shoot Horses Don’t They?, Jeremiah Johnson, and The Way We Were – I’ve covered in this retrospective so far: one is that more than anything else, Sydney Pollack is a director that makes no bones about the fact that he is more interested in the performance of the actor than the art of the director; the second thing is that no matter what kind of story he is telling – be it Depression-era drama about dance marathons or Transcendentalist westerns or political thrillers (more on that next week) – he’ll always make time in his films for human relationships, specifically the relationships between men and women.

I bring this up because in 1975, Pollack released two genre films that seem like departures for the director and the very thing he values most in film; however, if you look closely at both The Yakuza and Three Days of the Condor, you’ll see that even amidst the action and chases and confusing screenplays, there’s always a languid moment here and there – despite what the film is really after – to connect lonely, singular individuals. There’s always a goal to connect the protagonist with something – women/men, nature, vocation – of meaning (so I guess it’s safe to call Pollack an Existential filmmaker of sorts). The reason for this is simple: Pollack claimed once in an interview that the relationship between humans (men and women especially) interests him more than anything else because “it’s a metaphor for everything else in life.” So even The Yakuza, a Sydney Pollack film that doesn’t really feel all that much like a Sydney Pollack film (it’s more of a genre film), there are quiet moments where the characters are allowed to talk and exist, however briefly, in a less chaotic world than the one they normally inhabit. 


The Yakuza is an interesting bird. The script – originally penned by Paul Schrader (his first) and his brother Leonard – was infamous for inciting a bidding war unheard of in the early days of the “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls” era. Schrader reportedly received over $300,000 from Warner Brothers for the rights to film the script. Even though he had already written Taxi Driver, this would be the first script he would sell and get made (and, obviously, he did well for himself thereafter even though his script was heavily altered prior to filming); however, the final product would resemble very little what he had originally written and what was eventually put on screen is somewhat of a bore; a convoluted narrative that makes for an absolutely maddening experience because almost every other facet of the film (style, acting, setting) is extremely entertaining and watchable. 

The story – which is essentially about duty and honor and a difference in cultures (a theme the film is all too eager to remind us of through some eye-rollingly hideous exposition) – concerns Harry Kilmer (Robert Mitchum in a damn fine performance, especially considering the way he phoned it in late in his career), a retired detective, who is called upon by his friend, George Tanner, to go to Japan and help find his wife and daughter who have been taken hostage by Tono, a yakuza. Kilmer agrees to go, and upon returning to Japan we discover that Kilmer has a past in Tokyo. During the post-war occupation, Kilmer fell in love with a local woman named Eiko and helped save her daughter’s life.  However, when Eiko’s brother, Ken (Takakura Ken who was a big Yakuza-film star in Japan), returns from an island where he was a prisoner, he is shocked to see Kilmer living in the same house as his sister. Conflicted that his enemy is in his sister’s home, but also that this is the man that saved his niece’s life, Ken agrees to leave without doing anything, shunning his sister in the process and returning to the underground world of the yakuza.

As Kilmer returns to Tokyo with Tanner’s bodyguard (Richard Jordan) in tow (a convenient plot device for Mitchum’s character to educate him – and thus the audience – on Japanese culture; an aspiration of the film that I can’t quite decide whether it’s condescending or noble), he meets up with Eiko and inquires about Ken. She informs him that he is no longer in the yakuza – giving up the violent life – and does not wish to be disturbed. Kilmer invokes the “giri” – a Japanese code of honor that speaks to duty and obligation; in other words (or its exact words, if you will), the “burden hardest to bear” – which assures that Ken, who does not like Kilmer in the least but is forever in Kilmer’s debt for saving his niece’s life and taking care Eiko while he was at war, will aide Kilmer in his expedition. Ken and Kilmer rescue Tanner’s daughter; however, by taking up the sword after avowing never not to, Ken is spotted by one of Tono’s henchmen. It is reported back that Ken is once again killing people, and from there The Yakuza takes all kinds of B-movie detours into violence (which is a detour for Pollack, too) while playing up the ever-so-popular trope found in films of this ilk: the begrudging partnership.

It’s all gloriously wrought in that cheesy, drive-in fashion; a big-budget exploitation movie that has somehow (at least by me) flown under the radar compared to its contemporaries. There are some fantastic overhead shots by cinematographer Kôzô Okazaki and a genuine Japanese feel to the film. This no doubt is attributed to the fact that Pollack, since he shot 95% of the film in Japan, had to use a Japanese crew, adding an authority and authenticity to the film’s milieu. I especially like the scene in the bath house where Kilmer and the Tanner’s bodyguard are taking a soak and a yakuza, swimming underwater, is lunging at Kilmer with a knife. It’s cut together beautifully – Pollack does seem very concerned with not showing too much blood – and is affecting in showing that despite the quiet honor and various codes of honor and respect, this world that Kilmer has plunged himself into is chaotic with sudden bursts of violence.

The Yakuza is very much in the vein of the American western, too. Pollack seems interested in melding B-grade Oaters with the low-budget neo-noir with the obvious influence from the yakuza film to form some kind of odd amalgamation of the three (there’s even a great bit in the movie where, at a yakuza bar, a man sings “My Darling Clementine” – but not before he sings a nice bit of heavy-handed exposition about the yakuza and honor and duty that explains the characters’ motivations). The film was only ever intended to be seen as a B-movie that was to exploit the popular yakuza films that were big hits in Japan (much like how the Shaw Brothers movies and others of their ilk became big grindhouse hits). Pollack at least tries to add depth to an otherwise shallow script, but it also comes off as too overt, and it all seems in vain. The film never really coalesces into a movie that works on both the visceral and personal level. The final 40 minutes is really something; however, it’s borderline unbearable getting there. If it weren’t for the performances (which, knowing what we know, we can always attribute somewhat to Pollack), and the film’s style, then its deliberate pace would be its undoing and The Yakuza would be a slog to get through.

There’s more to the plot than what I’ve recapped above, but it all gets a little crammed and convoluted. What’s important is not so much what happens (in case you haven’t noticed by now, I’m not a plot synopsis kind of reviewer), but how differently things happen in the film than what was originally written in the screenplay. Part of the film’s problems lie in the re-worked script by Robert Towne who came in to “fix” Paul Schrader’s “genre heavy” (as Pollack put it) script. There’s a piece of exposition that explains Kilmer’s backstory and why he and Ken hate each other but will ultimately work together. It comes early in the film and removes any of the potential mystery of Kilmer’s character. If Pollack and Towne had meted this information out throughout the film, I think The Yakuza would have played perfectly as a mix between an existential neo-noir and violent B-movie – a kind of bloody, drive-in version of a Jean-Pierre Melville film. Instead, Pollack insisted on inserting that bit of exposition and a scene where Kilmer meets up with Eiko upon arriving in Tokyo. Pollack would no doubt argue that this detour is essential for Kilmer’s character (again, Pollack believed everything could be understood through the metaphor of individuals connecting/having a relationship); however, it dawdles too long before any kind of thesis has been established in the film. We don’t know that we should care about Kilmer and Eiko because we’re just being thrown into their reunion despite the filmmaker’s best efforts to use montage to break up the monotony of these early scenes.

The more salient relationship is the way Pollack juxtaposes Robert Mitchum with Takakura Ken. Pollack, in an interview with Patricia Erens, stated: “I kept cross-cutting between Mitchum and Takakura Ken. Mitchum is an absolute bull and Ken is like a matador. They’re both doing the same thing, but Mitchum is going about it in a pragmatic way while Ken is much more artful.” I like that approach the most about The Yakuza, and it plays to one of the film’s great strengths which is its acting, specifically that of Robert Mitchum. Pollack loved working with Mitchum (he called him an “old, wise horse” because “he’ll go just as hard or as fast as you’ll make him”) and it’s no surprise that Pollack’s greatest strength as a filmmaker (eliciting great performances from stars; I mean just listen to the way Pollack describes Mitchum here – it’s no wonder big time actors likes working with Pollack) motivated Mitchum to give a great performance. Mitchum was one of those old-time actors that knew how to push buttons and get away with murder (or as Pollack describes, “as little as possible…not out of laziness, though…”). There are so many moments where Pollack wisely focuses on Mitchum’s face (In the same interview linked above: “what you see in that face is really there; it’s really been marinated in life”), and when the film slows down for those moments, that is when I feel the film is elevated to the top of Pollack’s oeuvre. However, they are few and far between (just like the action) and the momentum of the film is ruined by too many dull moments that serve as nothing more than bad exposition. One cannot help but think what the film might have been had Pollack kept Paul Schrader’s (reportedly) darker and more violent (and perhaps more terse) script intact.

When Schrader’s script was purchased by Warner Brothers, Robert Aldrich (The Dirty Dozen) and Lee Marvin were set to direct and star respectively (they would have been a good match for what Schrader reported his script to be); however, when Mitchum was cast instead of Marvin, he asked Aldrich be removed (due to differences from a prior film). Pollack came aboard and immediately started making changes to the overly violent, but appropriately-so considering the kind of film Schrader wanted to make, script. So for the second time that decade, Pollack changed a violent script (the first being John Millius’ script for Jeremiah Johnson) into something that was more aligned with his political views and humanist tendencies; or, to be more fair to Pollack, something that “made sense” to the director (a matter of taste, as Pollack would claim). Pollack even stated that when he got the script there were problems similar to what he had with Millius (but not as intense) because Schrader was an “ex-critic and real film buff, and his models for everything were films he had seen before; he approached everything from a sort of genre point of view.” So it boiled down to taste and the fact that Schrader would say to Pollack that he wanted the film to open with violence and then introduce some character development and then more violence, etc. However, Pollack remembers thinking while he was listening to Schrader, “what does that mean? All I know is that the scene doesn’t work.”

So this difference in taste is what gives us the film’s biggest flaw in my opinion as Pollack spiced up the relational aspect of the film – both Kilmer/Eiko and Kilmer/Ken – adding more weight to the context of the characters. Instead of shady characters inhabiting shady environs, Pollack and Towne humanize the characters as much as possible and very obviously tone done the bloodshed (even though for a big studio at the time, as Roger Ebert pointed out in his review, the film was considered extremely violent) giving the film a more deliberate pace in between the violence. Look, I’m not one to complain about Pollack’s deliberate tendencies – I’ve always appreciated the obvious influence that 1940s/50s cinema had on his films – but here it doesn’t mesh with what The Yakuza is all about: good, old-fashioned, B-movie fun that is best represented in the film’s fantastically well-crafted final 40 minutes. But that is who Pollack was, and I kind of admire him for trying to bring a film rooted in genre influences to some kind of higher art form.

The motif of Pollack’s that is his bread and butter sticks out like a sore thumb in The Yakuza. There’s an interpersonal dichotomy at play in all of Pollack’s work. Whether it’s the relationship between Hubbell and Katie from The Way We Were being the most obvious or the way Jeremiah Johnson is constantly battling with nature and the “civilized” society trying to pull him back (we also see this in Three Days of the Condor where Robert Redford’s character is ideologically at odds with the organization that employs him), and The Yakuza – despite its failings at attempting this motif – is no different. The inserting of the male/female relationship is as overt as anything Pollack has done because it seems to disappear by the middle of the film to make way for the more interesting dichotomy between the two warriors, Kilmer and Ken.

So I still don’t know quite what to make of The Yakuza; as I stated earlier, it’s an odd bird (Pollack himself, who claims it as one of his favorites, called it an “oddball picture”) that I don’t quite know how to review. On one hand it has so many elements that I love about exploitation cinema. As Pollack has stated, the film isn’t an “audience picture,” as there is no easily definable genre one can pin the film to. I’ve thrown around words like “grindhouse” and “drive-in” and “exploitation,” but it’s more than that, too. I should say it aspires to be more than that. Whether or not it succeeds is arguable. Had Paul Schrader’s script stayed intact, it could have been one of those great undiscovered genre films of the ‘70s. But that’s not the film Pollack wanted to make. This has been a somewhat stream of conscious kind of review, and if you’ve tracked with me this far I can only find a way to conclude by summing it up thusly: the film is good but doesn’t necessarily “work” because of Pollack’s aspirations to make it something “more;” it’s a mess of a narrative that is saved by the film’s style and a helluva performance by Robert Mitchum. Ultimately, it’s worth checking out but in no way is it a forgotten gem of the ‘70s.


  1. Very good review. The "Yakuza" is a strange hybrid of a picture, but it's one of my all-time favourites, maybe just because it's so off center. It all hinges on the characters, of course. Mitchum and Takakura Ken's ultimate tough-guy relationship is the central thing that drives a by-the-numbers noir/action plot, that is shallow on detective work and sub plots. I think it could have used some more focus on the supporting characters, but that's a minor detail. I love the extended fight with the gangsters where all bets are off on who is living and who is dying. In the end our two heroes have nothing left because of the lives they've led, except each other, and they both understand that they need to put their differences in their past if they are to salvage anything at all. Much like "Sexy Beast" it's the performances that elevate in the end.

    1. Thanks, Lee. You're right about the most interesting thing about the movie being the two leads. I love the way Pollack juxtaposes their natures in that final bloody battle: Ken is smooth and patient with his sword -- graceful even -- while Mitchum is very much like the bull that Pollack likened him to: he bursts through those walls/doors shooting anything that moves. And I love that even though the film plays the begrudging partner angle, it doesn't split them off at the end -- they rely on the other to make their moves. It's a great piece of staging and editing, that final scene.

      I like your comparison to SEXY BEAST. In fact, I need to see that again...

      Thanks for the comment!

  2. One might also wonder if Schrader's insistence on an A-list director backfired. Martin Scorsese was very interested, but even after Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, lacked commercial clout for consideration. Schrader later complained about Pollack's approach falling in the middle, neither extremely visceral nor emphatically artistic. In spite, or maybe because, of the conflicts in making this film, it's still more interesting than several of Pollack's other films.

    1. Right you are, Peter. I omitted that bit about Scorsese from my piece, and I wish I would have kept it in there. I believe he had just finished BOXCAR BERTHA for Corman and was looking for his next project. It's odd that Schrader insisted on an A-list director considering he was such a film buff and fan of genre pictures (as Pollack states in that interview linked in my piece). It's interesting to think of what Scorsese could have done with this material knowing what we know with hindsight about the relationship he and Schrader (and the great films they would create) have and how well they work with one another.

      I also agree with the notion that because of the odd hybrid this movie is, it's one of Pollack's most interesting films; I don't know that I would call it one of his best movies, but it certainly stands out in an otherwise consistent oeuvre.

      Thanks for the comment, Peter!

  3. I've never seen this, but I'd like to, especially after reading this. It does seem like an atypical film for Pollack (and I have to confess, I sometimes confuse Sydney Pollack with Sidney Lumet). I always assumed that Takakura Ken played a Japanese cop, which would have dovetailed with his later role in Ridley Scott's Black Rain, but it sounds like both films do highlight the "begrudging partnership," as you say, between a Japanese native and a gaijin.