Robin’s Underrated Gems: The Yakuza (1974)

I ve previously mentioned that the largest sum ever paid for a screenplay is $4 million, which was what Shane Black received for his spec script for The Long Kiss Goodnight. It’s a record that still stands today, but to give you an idea of how much the movie business has changed over the years, Warner Bros. shocked the industry in 1974 when they paid the then-unheard-of sum of $325,000 for a spec script. And it was for a script that no major studio would probably want to touch today. This screenplay was called The Yakuza and it became the subject of a major bidding war between studios, even though it was written by Paul & Leonard Schrader, two brothers who were complete unknowns at the time. I’ve frequently discussed the works of Paul Schrader, who wrote the screenplays to such classics as Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, and has directed such underrated gems as Blue Collar, Hardcore and the remake of Cat People. Leonard Schrader also had himself a fairly successful career as a screenwriter and it was his personal experiences that brought The Yakuza to life. He had moved to Japan in the late 1960s to work there as a teacher (and mainly did so to avoid being drafted for the Vietnam War) and soon became immersed in the subculture of the Yamaguchi-gumi, which just happens to be the most dominant yakuza gangster organization in the country. Leonard wanted to write a novel based on the yakuza, but his brother convinced him to turn his story into a movie, so they collaborated together on a screenplay which wound up creating a lot of buzz in Hollywood. Sydney Pollack was eventually hired to direct the project, and legendary screenwriter Robert Towne was brought in to do some rewrites on the script. When a screenplay has been worked on by both Robert Towne and Paul Schrader, you know the end is probably going to be something special. Unfortunately, The Yakuza was not a success upon its initial release and is not particularly well-known today, but its legacy lives on through a devoted cult following.

The main protagonist of The Yakuza is a retired detective named Harry Kilmer (Robert Mitchum), who receives an urgent call from his old G.I. buddy, George Tanner (Brian Keith). Tanner has become involved in business dealings with a dangerous yakuza gangster named Tono (Eiji Okada) and has lost a shipment of guns he was supposed to deliver to them, so they have kidnapped his daughter in retaliation. Since Kilmer has a lot of connections in Japan, Tanner is hoping that his friend can track down his daughter and rescue her. Accompanied by Tanner s bodyguard, Dusty (Richard Jordan), Kilmer travels to Tokyo and reacquaints himself with a former lover named Eiko (Keiko Kishi) and her daughter, Nakano (Christina Kokubo). While serving in the Marines, Kilmer had helped them both out during the post-World War II occupation of Japan and saved their lives. Eiko’s brother, Ken (Ken Takakura), was a soldier who was stranded on an island for several years following the war and upon returning home, he is outraged to find her romantically involved with an American. This ultimately brought an end to the relationship between Kilmer and Eiko, but because of the Japanese code of honour, Ken still owes Kilmer a giri (a lifelong debt) for saving his family’s life. Ken became involved in the yakuza underworld following his return, and Kilmer hopes to collect on Ken’s debt by seeking his assistance with recovering Tanner’s daughter. If you’re expecting a story about Kilmer going on a rampage through Tokyo like Liam Neeson in Taken, that’s definitely not the case here. They actually find and rescue Tanner’s daughter within the first half hour. After that, the story winds up getting a lot more complex, as the characters are forced to test their loyalties and make some very difficult choices.

Even though Kilmer has accomplished his mission and can go home, he has second thoughts when he realizes that Ken may have put his own life at risk in order to help him and will be facing severe retribution from Tono and the yakuza. Kilmer stays behind to help Ken, and their alliance makes for one of the most interesting and multi-layered friendships ever portrayed in a film. The Yakuza could have easily just been your standard violent revenge thriller, but the story has a lot more depth than that and provides a constant series of surprises and revelations. While the yakuza sub-genre has always been very prominent in Japanese cinema, this marked the first time a Hollywood film ever tried to tackle the subject. The Yakuza has always been looked upon as a metaphor for Japan s transition to economic success after being taken over the U.S., and how much this transition clashed with traditional Japanese values. Ken represents someone whose old-school cultural values have almost become passé, and we eventually discover that his code of honour and moral indebtedness have motivated him to make sacrifices that most people would find unthinkable. He may personally dislike Kilmer, but has such a strong sense of loyalty that he would do anything for him. Ken provides a sharp contrast to the character of Tanner, who pretends to be Kilmer’s best friend and gets him to perform a dangerous task, but it later turns out that Tanner has no values and his only personal code is doing whatever it takes to save his own ass. The line of dialogue which perfectly summarizes the difference between Eastern and Western values in this film is when Dusty says: “When an American cracks up, he opens the window and shoots up a bunch of strangers. When a Japanese cracks up, he closes the window and kills himself”. However, even though The Yakuza is a very multi-faceted story, it’s still a very exciting thriller and the ultra-violent finale where Kilmer and Ken team up to take on the yakuza packs a lot of punch.

Ken Takakura is one of the most famous Japanese actors of all time (often referred to as “the Clint Eastwood of Japan”) and had starred in numerous yakuza films before this one. Though he’d had a supporting role in the 1970 war film, Too Late the Hero, The Yakuza was the first film to really showcase his talents to an international audience, and he has since starred in a couple more Hollywood productions, such as Black Rain and Mr. Baseball. Takakura delivers an incredible performance here, and Ken is truly one of the most fascinating and complex characters to ever be seen in a genre film. Robert Mitchum is equally good in the role of Kilmer and has terrific chemistry with Takakura. Other standout performances are delivered by Richard Jordan as Dusty, a character who gradually winds re-examining his own core values as the film goes along, and James Shigeta (best known to American audiences as Takagi in Die Hard) as Goro, a yakuza advisor who also happens to be Ken’s estranged brother. The Yakuza is pretty much a modernized samurai story, but it does feature a lot of conventions and themes that can be recognized from your traditional western. Given the talent involved in this project, it is surprising that The Yakuza was not a success at the box office. However, the film was released during the era when kung fu films had become extremely popular in North America, so maybe audiences were just more interested in seeing mindless chop-socky flicks than a genre film which provided a serious, in-depth look at another culture. Even though The Yakuza features a bloody, action-packed finale, the real climax of this story is one character offering a shocking, but genuinely moving gesture of friendship to another. The brilliance of the film is that it still delivers enough action and excitement to satisfy genre fans while at the service of a very intelligent story with three-dimensional characters you care about. For that reason, The Yakuza remains an underrated gem worth seeking out.

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