Review: The Yakuza

[Originally published in Movietone News 40, April 1975]

First things first: The way they say it in the movie is yaw-ku-zah and, as a headnote explains, the Yakuza were roughly parallel to the western’s good badmen—gamblers, con men, drifters with short swords and no samurai code of bushido to sustain them, sometime Robin Hood figures who stood between the defenseless and the marauders who would prey upon them. Yakuza stories within a modern gangster framework are immensely popular in the Japanese cinema, and Paul Schrader, former editor of the American film magazine Cinema, wrote a comprehensive survey of the genre for a Film Comment of about a year ago. Remarking therein that anyone who’d seen a few examples of this relentlessly formalized genre could write one himself, Schrader spoke from experience: his own The Yakuza, touched up a smidge by Robert Towne and formally permissive enough to incorporate some double-dealing American gangsters along with its Japanese pro- and antagonists, looked a likely enough successor to the kung-fu cycle in popularity that Warner Brothers paid a hefty price for the screenplay ($300,000, according to Newsweek).

Whether such a cycle I will materialize remains to be seen. Schrader and Towne, working from Leonard Schrader’s story, cook up enough variations on the themes of honor, betrayal, revenge, and bloody apology to satisfy anyone’s urge toward mythopoesis, but Sydney Pollack (who never even managed to establish that the They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? dance pavilion was located at the end of a seaside pier) manifests as much mythic sense as a mill foreman. Although there are some tongue-curling fight scenes involving yakuza superstar Takakura Ken and his short sword—with Robert Mitchum using a .45 and a 12-gauge to referee from the sidelines—the bulk of the film is as limp as a first reading; perhaps uncharitably, one tends to credit the action stuff to Takakura and the Japanese cameraman. Such failure of directorial responsiveness is fatal in a film that seeks to deal with the yakuza’s austere ethics and metaphysics, which makes existentialism sound like chamber-of-commerce optimism by contrast. Pollack even muffs reaction shots, playing Takakura’s ritual finger-cutting on Mitchum’s early-Fifties “Now I’ve seen everything!” take (audience laughter at Mitchum’s no-bullshit Western reaction to screwy Oriental inscrutability) and then preparing for Mitchum’s own self-mutilation with the same “What the hell am I doin’ here?” closeups (audience laughter at the certainty that ol’ Bob will say “Pass!” at the last moment). This is either incompetence or gross breach of faith with the material—neither prospect is flattering to Pollack. It remains only to wonder, distractedly, who is responsible for the dreamily pointless, film-school clever dissolves from Herb Edelman bringing Richard Jordan (wasted by Pollack) up to date on Mitchum’s past, to Mitchum himself making his way through present-day Tokyo streets to a rendezvous with that past; we keep losing Edelman’s commentary, picking up only key phrases, as if the film were saying, “You’ve heard all this before in a dozen movies”—as indeed we have. Was this a critic-turned-screenwriter designing a practical method for avoiding slavish visual coverage of a long verbal exposition, or a director gussying up his assignment with a little hack artiness?

RTJ

THE YAKUZA
Direction: Sydney Pollack. Screenplay: Paul Schrader and Robert Towne, after a story by Leonard Schrader. Production design: Stephen Grimes; art direction: Yoshiyuki Ishida. Cinematography: Kôzô Okazaki. Music: Dave Grusin.
The Players: Robert Mitchum, Takakura Ken, Kishi Keiko, James Shigeta, Okada Eiji, Brian Keith, Richard Jordan, Herb Edelman, Christina Kokubo.

Copyright © 1975 by Richard T. Jameson