Former private eye Harry Kilmer knows a lot about Japan - and the gangsters who keep an iron grip on its gambling, prostitution and protection rackets. He knows there's a right way to approach the brutal underworld. And he knows there's one thing powerful mobsters respect: greater power.
Robert Mitchum is Kilmer in this haunting East-meets-West-head-on thriller powered by a team of heavy Hollywood hitters: writers Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver) and Robert Towne (Chinatown) and director Sydney Pollack (The Interpreter). Co-starring Japan's Takakura Ken and veteran character actor Brian Keith. The Yakuza is a modern film noir in which honor and loyalty become issues of life and death. Violence erupts with the speed of a Tokyo-bound bullet train. And the last thing to die is tradition.
The classic "fish out of water" character can make for a great thriller. A guy from another culture finds himself caught in a new world steeped in traditions he doesn't understand while trying to solve a mystery. It's a classic setup for any number of movies. Some excel at it, like John Wayne in 1975's Brannigan. Others like 1974's 'The Yakuza' from director Sydney Pollack and starring Robert Mitchum don't make the most of the classic plot setup. Often too pondering and lacking enough forward momentum, the suspense of 'The Yakuza' cuts like a dull blade while providing an interesting character study of honor and obligation.
Asked by his long time friend George (Brian Keith), Harry Kilmer (Robert Mitchum) is forced to face his past. During the Japanese Occupation, Harry fell in love with a Japanese woman named Eiko (Keiko Kishi) whose Yakuza brother Ken (Ken Takakura) was fighting American forces. When the brother returns home and sees his sister with Harry, shame forces the romance to end. Nearly thirty years later, Harry now has to find Ken in order to help a friend out of a jam with the Yakuza. As Ken has taken a peaceful life and laid down the sword, his debt to Harry for taking care of Eiko and her daughter forces him to pick up his sword once more. With Harry's friend Dusty (Richard Jordan), Harry and Ken take care of George's little problem. When the reality of the situation sets in, Harry realizes he's put Dusty, Ken and Eiko in the crosshairs of the Yakuza. Honor-bound for revenge, the Yakuza will stop at nothing - unless Harry and Ken can fight their way back to living peaceful lives.
When watching 'The Yakuza' one is frequently confronted with the feeling of watching two separate movies at the same time. On one hand, we have our detective Harry trying to do the right thing but ends up making the situation worse. On the other hand, we have a central character walking through the world we the audience don't know or understand so the film becomes a pseudo-travelogue of sorts. The only problem with this setup is that our central hero Harry is well versed in Japanese culture. The man we're supposed to root for is already thirty paces ahead in this race to play cultural catch-up. So the duty of being an exposition dump rests on the uninteresting Dusty played by the late Richard Jordan. Just when the action feels like it's about to pick up, just when it feels like something interesting is about to happen, the film pauses all forward momentum to teach Dusty a lesson in Japanese culture. This process runs right up until the point where the audience doesn't need to know anything more to understand what's going on and then Dusty is unceremoniously killed off.
Part of the problem that hobbles 'The Yakuza' is a simple fact of time. In 1975, most Americans didn't know or care about Japanese culture. So to that end, 'The Yakuza' is an awkwardly clunky film that has to make the introductory effort that later and better films will be able to capitalize on. That isn't to say that the effort is entirely wasted, 'The Yakuza' has plenty of great action and suspense set pieces as well as one of Mitchum's best performances. However, it's not as successful as one would hope for a film from a director like Sydney Pollack and a screenplay by Paul Schrader and Robert Towne. A great effort is made, but the final results can feel more than a little bloated.
I first caught 'The Yakuza' around the same time that I saw Ridley Scott's 'Black Rain.' I can't say which one I saw first because I honestly don't remember, but I've always felt that 'Black Rain' had the better structure simply because Michael Douglas' character was in the same boat as the audience. With 'Black Rain' we're part of the discovery process. We learn things when the lead character learns them, we don't have to wait for an unimportant side character to be told that he's just made a cultural faux pas that needs to be corrected with a prolonged history lesson. That isn't to say that 'The Yakuza' doesn't have some great elements working for it, but those new to the film who are already somewhat informed in Japanese culture will likely find this film to be a bit of an unfortunate slog. It's still a very watchable movie, but it isn't one of my favorites.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The Yakuza' arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of Warner Archive Collection. Pressed onto a Region A BD-50 disc, the disc is housed in a standard sturdy Blu-ray case and loads directly to a static image main menu.
'The Yakuza' arrives on Blu-ray sporting a fresh, gorgeous, The 2.40:1 1080p from a new 2k scan. This new transfer does away with a number of issues that plagued previous home video releases - namely improving black levels. Previous releases looked way too dark and characters would routinely turn into floating heads. Here, there is an appreciable sense of depth and shadow separation ensuring that no matter how darkly lit the scene may be, everything looks terrific. Film grain is detectable throughout, but never so noisy as to dominate a scene. Colors are bright featuring lush primaries and healthy skin tones. All around this is a beautiful transfer free of any age-related damage or any sort of negative compression artifacts.
As a dialogue-heavy film, 'The Yakuza' sports a fantastic English/Japanese DTS-HD MA 2.0 audio mix. Dialogue is front and center taking command of the mix as there are frequent long character-driven conversations. Scoring by Dave Grusin is another in a long line of terrific jazz-themed scores that fits perfectly within the mood and pace of the film without overpowering the mix. Sound effects during the quieter moments work to subtly set the scene and roar to life when the action requires it. Levels are spot on and you shouldn't need to make adjustments. Like the video presentation, this is a terrific mix.
Audio Commentary: Ported over from the previous DVD release, this is Pollack at his best. the man is a fountain of filmmaking knowledge and it's great to sit back and let the man talk about the making of this film as he leaves no stone unturned. If you haven't listened to it, you really should.
Promises to Keep Featurette: (HD 19:29) Sort of a long-form EPK from the 1970s, this is a very well detailed and interesting behind the scenes look at the making of the film.
Theatrical Trailer: (HD 3:01)
'The Yakuza' may not be a great film, nor is it one of director Sydney Pollack's best efforts, but is at the very least an enjoyable journey. The film also features some terrific performances, especially from lead Robert Mitchum - the man just knew how to communicate emotional vulnerability with his eyes like no one else. Warner Archive Collection has done a terrific job bringing this one to Blu-ray with a stellar A/V presentation and some decent bonus features ported over from the previous DVD releases. I didn't love 'The Yakuza,' but I certainly wouldn't dissuade someone from giving it the chance its due. Absolutely worth a look.