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  December 2011 / January 2012

* (April / May 2012)  A PRAYER FOR THE DYING

* (Dec. 2011 / Jan. 2012)  THE YAKUZA

* (Sept. / Oct. 2011)  THE MAN WHO LOVED CAT DANCING
* (July / Aug. 2011)  History of TRUE GRIT
* (May / June 2011)  History of THE GREEN HORNET



by CEJ

Warner Bros.
GullCottage rating (***** on a scale of 1 - 5)

Prod. & Dir. by Sydney Pollack
Screenplay by Paul Schrader and Robert Towne
Story by Leonard Schrader
Dir. of  Photography: Koza Okazaki  
Music by: Dave Grusin

Cast: Robert Mitchum, Takakura Ken, Brian Keith,
Kishi Keiko, Richard Jordan, Herb Edelman,
James Shigeta, Christina Kokobu

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     Dear God!  How home video can lapse into redundancy.  Every Tuesday, new releases of “top 40s”-type films you avoided theatrically, or maybe the newest season of a TV series no one gave a damn about the first time around.  Now and then however an obscure jewel emerges, the news of which can make true cinema lovers do the living room version of a Super Bowl end-zone dance.  Such a “boogie down-worthy” event was Warner Home Video’s 2007 finally DVD debut of director Sydney Pollack’s THE YAKUZA.
play THE YAKUZA - "Prologue / Main Title" (D. Grusin)

Sydney Pollack (1934 - 2008)  

     Amongst all those wonderful “essential” 70s-era American films (which would come to be both lauded internationally over the years as well as imitated at home by other filmmakers) Pollack’s 1974 neo-noir, love story, martial-arts, culture-clash, gangster extravaganza, would emerge as one of the best.  And yes, that’s a helluva wordy breakdown to be sure.  But then, THE YAKUZA has a helluva lot on it’s cinematic mind.  Written by the men who gave us other 70s essentials like TAXI DRIVER, RAGING BULL, THE LAST DETAIL and CHINATOWN, and directed with a sophisticated elegance akin to “visual jazz” (no surprise as Pollack was also responsible for such visually stunning narratives as THE WAY WE WERE and OUT OF AFRICA as well as the thrillers THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR and THE FIRM), THE YAKUZA would boast one of the most impressive pedigrees of it’s day. 

     A triple-threat of stunning action choreography, emotional resonance, and philosophical intelligence, it would be ripped off thematically and visually in later films such as BLADE RUNNER-1982, BLACK RAIN-1989 and KILL BILL-2003 / ‘04.  Action fans would rank it amongst the best American made entries in the martial-arts genre; and both female and male viewers would find themselves surprisingly on the verge of tears by a pair of deeply effecting love stories at the film’s core.  Well, one of them a male bonding story about two Gibralter-hard old school tough guys finally learning in their later years how to trust; and the other a truly touching Romeo & Juliet-esque tale of two aging soul mates separated by culture and years of ancient tradition.   

     Yet in spite of all this THE YAKUZA would, apart from a pair of token VHS releases during the 80s and 90s (remember those huge plastic “clamshell” VHS cases?) and a hard-to-find laser disc, all but disappear until finally given that long overdue remastered DVD release in ‘07.  As with our previous entry, THE MAN WHO LOVED CAT DANCING-1973, it is time for the rest of the world to discover another very rare film which both men and women over the years have come to embrace with equal passion.  In more ways than one THE YAKUZA is truly “the Best of Both Worlds”.  



     Throughout the history of Asian cinema one of the more popular genres to emerge (primarily during the 1960s and early 70s) was the “yakuza eiga” (ヤクザ映画) Japanese mafia film.  The origins of real life yakuza date back to the era of ancient samurai when shady gamblers and warrior-drifters (“ronin”) were said to have defended (Robin Hood-style) innocent villagers from exploitive nobleman landowners.  In modern times however the image of contemporary yakuza (“noble outlaws” or "violent thugs"?) would depend on the personal opinion of to whom one was speaking. 

     This societal contrast of opinions would be expressed in two sub-genres of yakuza film: the “ninkyo eiga” (chivalry films) featuring a taciturn, kimono-clad honorable outlaw inwardly torn between ancient “giri” (duty) and modern “ninjo” (personal feelings); and the “jitsuroku” films - usually less romantic, more gritty, andstreet-wise, and often (at least loosely) based on true life stories.  One seminal such film of the day was Kenji Fukasaku’s 1973 magnum opus BATTLES WITHOUT HONOR OR HUMANITY - often referred to as “the Japanese THE GODFATHER”.  

     At the height of the “yakuza eiga” cinema craze American writer Leonard Schrader was living in Japan and was a huge fan of the genre.  Seeking to launch a stateside film writing career, he’d fashion a unique story outline combining elements of the popular “eiga” with American film noir, then bring in his younger brother Paul Schrader to help flesh it out into screenplay form. 

     The brothers’ intent was to make the Japanese film genre palatable to westerners via the introduction into the “eiga” world of a classically familiar noirish American “loner” character who would serve as the audience‘s “tour guide” into this strange universe.  At the same time they’d utilize a noble outlaw “ninkyo eiga” character familiar to Japanese movie goers as reciprocal “tour guide” for easterners into the equally strange cinema landscape of the western-style “Chandler-esque” gumshoe world.  The story they’d fashion as a narrative “cultural bridge” (combining the best of both genre worlds) would be that of American Harry Kilmer’s violent return to his beloved Japan after a 20 year self imposed exile.

     Kilmer, now a middle-aged LA-based private investigator, was years ago a member of the U.S. occupying military forces in post-WWII Japan.  It was there and then he met Eiko, a strong-willed Japanese single mother supporting herself and young daughter financially as a runner of black market goods.  After saving her life during a skirmish with American soldiers, Kilmer and Eiko formed a bond and eventually fell in love.  In time she moved in with him but refused to marry.  Eventually Kilmer discovered why.  Her brother, Ken, was a Japanese soldier long missing and presumed dead; and to marry Kilmer (an enemy) would have been an insult to his memory.  Kilmer learned this when Ken returned and, grateful to Kilmer for saving Eiko’s life, but now shamed that he would be forever indebted to his enemy, refused to ever speak with his sister again.  Heartbroken, Kilmer left Japan. 

     In the present day, wealthy LA-based industrialist George Tanner contacts Kilmer in desperation.  Tanner’s daughter has been kidnapped by the Japanese yakuza “Oyabun” (mob boss) Toshiro Tono in an attempt to coerce Tanner into an illegal business alliance. 

     Knowing Kilmer is owed a debt by Ken (who after the war became a powerful yakuza), Tanner asks Kilmer to intercede with the yakuza (through Ken) on his behalf.  And Kilmer, owing Tanner a debt (Tanner loaned Kilmer the money to buy Eiko a café as a “sayonara” gift years ago), agrees.  Once Kilmer’s back in Japan, long buried memories and emotions are resurrected.  Violence shatters the lives of he, Ken and Eiko.  And, amidst the bloodshed, all are forced to juggle and deal with issues of family, honor, betrayal, sacrifice and ultimately the true meanings of brotherhood and love itself. 

Original director and star - Robert Aldrich   
and Lee Marvin on THE DIRTY DOZEN (1967)  

     Warner Bros. purchased the Schraders’ script for a then unheard of $300,000, and Robert Aldrich (WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE-1962, THE DIRTY DOZEN-1967) was attached as director.  Aldrich’s first choice for Kilmer was Lee Marvin, who was an actual WW2 vet, and with whom Aldrich had already worked on THE DIRTY DOZEN and EMPEROR OF THE NORTH-1973.  Marvin dropped out over creative differences, then Robert Mitchum, Aldrich’s second choice, stepped in.  After (what appeared to be) a pleasant six hour dinner and drinking session with the director, Mitchum sent word the next day he didn’t want Aldrich on the project.  Sydney Pollack (who’d just had three back to back hits with THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON’T THEY?-1969, JEREMIAH JOHNSON-1972 and THE WAY WE WERE-1973) was then hired. 

   CHINATOWN's papa - Robert Towne

With the arrival of Pollack the film’s focus changed.  While certainly interested in the action / violence elements, he wanted more to explore the characters’ philosophical and emotional conflicts - chiefly those of Kilmer and Ken, both of them stubbornly “old school” men of honor now in a changing world where such notions were quickly going out of vogue.  Robert Towne, who’d recently penned the critically acclaimed THE LAST DETAIL-1972 and CHINATOWN-’74 (as well as having done uncredited rewrites on BONNIE AND CLYDE-’67 and THE PARALLAX VIEW-’74) was brought in to shift the emphasis; and the final screen credits would read “Screenplay by Paul Schrader and Robert Towne; Story by Leonard Schrader”.  

                                                             Mitchum and Ken on set 


     For the role of Ken, Pollack wanted an understated Japanese actor; not an easy task when many national performers at the time were of the operatic Kabuki school.  It’s attendant “larger than life” aspects were fine for more stylized cinema such as the Kurosawa-like samurai films, but not appropriate for the more realistic depiction of modern life for which the new film called, especially as whomever was chosen as Ken would share many scenes with the weathered and noir-ish Mitchum - the personification of understated acting.  Pollack’s perfect choice ended up being Takakura Ken, the star of many “ninkyo eiga” films, and who at the time was considered by many to be “Japan’s Clint Eastwood”. 

  1960's cinema heartthrob Shigeta

    Stalwart character actor Brian Keith (best known for TV’s A FAMILY AFFAIR and later HARDCASTLE AND McCORMICK) was chosen as Tanner.  Kishi Keiko would be cast as Eiko.  Richard Jordan (LOGAN’S RUN-’76, THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER-’90) as Dusty - Tanner’s young bodyguard and Kilmer’s right-hand-man.  Herb Edelman (who’d just appeared in Pollack’s THE WAY WE WERE-’73) as Oliver: Kilmer and Tanner’s friend who stayed in Japan after WW2.  And American-based Japanese actor James Shigeta as Ken’s brother Goro. 

     In Japan, Shigeta’s casting was the most controversial.  One of the most regarded Japanese thespians in cinema history, the award winning performer of stage and screen (TV’s MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE and MEDICAL CENTER to the films FLOWER DRUM SONG-’61, DIE HARD-’88 and MULAN-’98) was thought by some to be “too Americanized”.  While Shigeta was born in Japan, his many years in America had caused him to lose his accent, thereby necessitating practice to “reclaim” it for his role as Goro.  Pollack defended his decision. 

     The Goro character is a respected contemporary Japanese financier with yakuza ties.  In fact his attempts to move the yakuza Oyabuns into legitimate business has made him a center of controversy within the mob world.  When Mitchum’s Kilmer meets Goro, he explains to Kilmer a great deal of backstory about not only his own family, but his family’s ties to the yakuza and Japanese history.  This meeting (near the middle of the film) is of such importance to the narrative, Pollack didn’t want an actor who’s strong accent would cause western audiences to “tune out” during this most important exposition.  Pollack was justified as in the end product Shigeta gives the film much of it emotional core. 

Sydney Pollack interview with John A. Gallagher


play THE YAKUZA - "Kendo Sword Ritual" (D. Grusin)


     With the exception of a few opening scenes in America, the bulk of filming took place in Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto under Pollack and cinematographer Koza Okazaki (HYMN TO A TIRED MAN-’68, BURAIKAN-’70), who spoke no English.  In fact most of Pollack’s crew didn’t.  With the exception of his production designer Stephen Grimes (with whom the director first worked on THIS PROPERTY IS CONDEMNED-’66) a focus puller and a camera operator, the entire crew was comprised of local technicians and craftsmen, some of whom had real life yakuza pasts, their tell-tale sign being missing fingertips - indicative of “yubitsume”, the yakuza ceremony of cutting off the appendage as a symbol of abject sorrow and apology. 

     An interpreter was used for verbal communication.  And for visual, Pollack and Okazaki used a set of “Grey Scale” cards in 10 stages to indicate to one another the density and depth of a scene’s various blacks, colors and highlights.  One of the film’s early visual set pieces is a stunning noir-like montage as Mitchum’s Kilmer walks through the crowded late night neon-lit streets of Tokyo en route to see Eiko - whom he’s continued to love over the years.  As difficult as filming a coordinated crowded street scene would be in America, it was impossible in Tokyo.  The filmmakers therefore “stole” the images.  As most Tokyo citizens would not recognize Mitchum, Pollack and Okazaki placed various cameras in large, non descript cardboard boxes, set them on wagons, then wheeled the wagons in and out of the crowd while following Mitchum.  
Pollack, Kishi Keiko and Robert Mitchum

     Wearing his producer hat, Pollack wisely decided not to haggle with and contract individual production service providers, but to rather hire one Japanese studio which would in turn sub-contract to local electricians, craft services, catering, special effects technicians, etc. 

     As for the film’s actionful aspects, THE YAKUZA would forge new ground.  Part American “shoot ’em up” and part classic samurai swordplay film, never had the two genres been fused to such a degree.  Terence Young’s RED SUN-’71, with Charles Bronson and Toshiro Mifune as a mismatched outlaw and displaced samurai forced to join forces in the turn of the century American wild west, was a more stylized and fanciful film.  THE YAKUZA was based in contemporary reality, and trying to “fake it” to an audience (especially in Japan) now accustomed to the brutal “near documentary” nature of the “jitsuroku” films just wouldn’t fly. 

     By nature western “gunplay” films also tended to be edited more rapidly than traditional “swordplay” flicks which move and flow more deliberately, not unlike a fluidly filmed musical ballet.  On top of it, in the early 1970s, weapons props weren’t as convincingly reproduced as today.  So with the exception of one rarely used silver painted “bamboo” blade, all of the swords in THE YAKUZA are real “katanas” capable of severing limbs even when not sharpened. 

     A veteran of numerous “eiga” films (and a real life kendo expert) Takakura Ken performed his own stunts within the fight sequences.  So did most of the other Japanese performers.  And while there were a few minor injuries (Mitchum‘s limp in the climactic battle scene is real), the professionalism of the cast and crew precluded any major on-set mishaps.  As the melding of the two genres was still relatively new there were no “fight choreography” experts to turn to.  So Pollack (not comfortable with storyboards; he never felt they gave a true sense of tempo and tone) improvised the two major battle set pieces: the first when Kilmer, Ken and Dusty rescue Tanner’s daughter earlier in the film, then in the climactic tour de force sequence when Kilmer and Ken invade mob boss Tono’s warrior-guarded estate.

      As Pollack “made it all up” as they went along, a sword master sensei was on set the entire time to verify whether or not certain fight moves and strategy would be plausible, do-able and appropriate.  The “raid of Tono’s estate” sequence would become such a classic staple of action cinema it would be continually copied (narratively, structurally and visually) in many later films - among them Ridley Scott’s BLACK RAIN-‘89, Quentin Tarantino’s KILL BILL-’03 and numerous Chuck Norris and Steven Segal actioners including AN EYE FOR AN EYE-’81, HARD TO KILL and MARKED FOR DEATH (both 1990).  

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