Produced and directed by Sydney Pollack, with a story by Leonard Schrader that adapted by Paul Schrader and Robert Towne, this action drama set in Japan stars Robert Mitchum as Harry Kilmer. It’s a Japanese gangster story about honor and fulfilling one’s debts that starts with greed and betrayal. It includes samurai sword battles that pale in comparison to more recent blade fare. Ken Takakura plays Ken Tanaka, who’s reluctantly in Harry’s debt from the post-World War II Allied occupation years in Japan over a woman Eiko. There are family entanglements which aren’t fully revealed until near the end of the film, though they are alluded to earlier. Harry has traveled back to Japan after a twenty year absence at the request of his friend George Tanner, who’d also been in the military with Kilmer after the war. Herb Edelman plays a third, who still lives in Tokyo; his home becomes Harry’s base of operations. Tanner’s bodyguard Dusty is sent along to help Harry, who’s charged with asking Tanaka to help with the titled “mafia”; Dusty is attracted to Eiko’s daughter Hanako. Tanaka used to be a member of the group, and now his brother Goro in Kyoto is its leader. Tanner has a dispute with a powerful, less honorable member of the Yakuza named Tono over a missing shipment of guns; Tono in turn has kidnapped Tanner’s daughter, which is why Harry and Dusty have been sent to Japan. —Classicfilmguide.com
Sydney Pollack was born to first generation Russian-Jewish Americans on July 1, 1934. After graduating from his Indiana high school, he went to New York and became a student at the Neighborhood Playhouse, a celebrated Greenwich Village school, where he studied under Sanford Meisner. He served two years in the army before returning to the Neighborhood Playhouse in 1958 as a teacher, and began appearing as an actor in live television dramas. His appearance in a John Frankenheimer-directed television production led him to a job as dialogue coach in the filmmaker’s 1961 crime drama The Young Savages. He quickly moved into television, directing on programs such as “The Defenders,” “The Naked City,” “The Fugitive,” “Dr. Kildare,” and “Ben Casey” during the early and mid 1960s, and in 1965 made his feature film debut in the director’s chair with The Slender Thread.
Pollack established himself as a competent, if unexceptional, director in such works as This Property Is Condemned, and… read more
One of the first things I noticed about this movie is that the Japanese characters actually SPEAK JAPANESE, and not English like in so many Hollywood movies today! How amazing is that? Despite being touted as an action movie, The Yakuza is more in line with your typical New Hollywood movie. There is a great deal of romantic melancholy and existential despair to go around. Robert Mitchum at his laconic and fatalistic best plays Harry Kilmer, who returns to Japan for the first time in two decades to save his friend from the yakuza. In Japan, he left behind a troubled love affair with Eiko, because of the disapproval of her brother Ken Tanaka. Further complicating things, Kilmer saved Eiko's life, and Tanaka feels forever indebted to him. Thus it is Tanaka that Harry recruits to help save his friend. One thing that I find so amazing about this movie is the way it deals with the meeting of two cultures. Rather than focusing on the obvious culture clash, director Sydney Pollack focuses on the similarities between these two jaded men. He deals with the usual themes of honor, family, repentance with a very human touch, and his eschews cliches for something quieter and more gut-wrenching. When they say Hollywood just isn't making movies like they used to, this is one of the movies that they used to make, mature and entertaining storytelling that takes the audience seriously.
After The Way We Were in 1973, The Yakuza was the second masterpiece in a row directed by Sydney Pollack, a director who seems already forgotten now, just a few years after his death. A DVD I'm proud to have in my library.