“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). Costarring Japan’s Takaura 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 Yakuza is a modern day film-noir telling a story unlike no other. As cultures clash in this Sydney Pollack film, we are subject to a film that is incredibly interesting as it explores a story of honor and revenge.
We start out as Harry Kilmer is approached by an American businessman who asks him to retrieve his daughter who has been kidnapped by the Yakuza. Because of his background in World War II and time he spent in Japan after the war, Kilmer is very knowledgeable about the culture, and decides to travel to Japan to do what he can to help. Kilmer asks for the help of Tanaka Ken, the brother of the woman he saved and fell in love with during his time in Japan. Because of this debt that can never be repaid, Ken, a former Yakuza member, feels he has no choice but to pick up his sword once more and dive back into the world of the Yakuza to assist on this rescue mission.
After the rescue, the Yakuza Boss demands revenge after the death of several of his men. Ken and Kilmer struggle with their obligations to honor and to each other as they face attacks from all sides. While coming to the realization of what they must do, they discover a hidden agenda on both sides, and must work together to exact honor and justice.
The most interesting thing about this film is the era it takes place in. Only a few decades after World War II, the Japanese culture is still in the midst of incredible change, as one generation struggles to hang on to a tradition and culture that is quickly being forgotten. The film portrays this struggle brilliantly with the character Tanaka Ken who has lost everything in the war, but continues to hang on to the only thing he has left: honor and tradition. Also reflected in this sense of honor and tradition is Kilmer, an outsider who has great respect for the culture and has adopted this sense of honor, who seems to be more at home in Japan than in the United States. The bond of respect between these two men continues to grow throughout the film, as Kilmer eventually learns they have more of a connection than he ever could have imagined. These two characters drive the entire film, and the actors that portray them give commanding performances. Robert Mitchum, a very underrated talent of another generation gives the kind of performance that will make you want to seek out his large body of work spanning decades.
The style of the film is particularly interesting as well. Very film noir-ish with all the elements of another culture. Instead of shootouts, there are deadly sword fights, with such close quarters and careful yet calculating movements that are so intense it leaves you on the edge of your seat. One thing that sets these fight scenes apart from other films is how real they seem. They are visceral, clumsy, confusing, what I can only imagine would be a very authentic feel when faced with such a situation. Pollack’s directing style is very unique, with many sequences shown without dialogue, a testament to a great filmmaker that can tell so much without the using words.
The Yakuza is presented in 1080p High Definition 2.4:1. This transfer has been cleaned up quite nicely, as there are no defects noticed in the source print. Film grain stays consistent throughout the film staying true to the original intent. Color levels are good, and being a film-noir type film, there are going to be a lot of darker scenes and use of darkness and light to give them film a style of its own. There is a bit of softness to the picture, which is more noticeable in a select few scenes. Other than that, it is a good treatment for a 70’s film.
The audio is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Mono. While not incredibly impressive when it comes to the use of your surrounds, there are quite a few things that make you take notice of the track. The score stays in touch with the style of the film, but what stood out most to me were the foley effects of the swords. While the battles were nerve wracking to begin with, the clanging of the swords was very unique and chilling. Levels were good throughout the film with no noticeable defects.
Unfortunately there aren’t many extras on this disc. We do get a commentary by Pollack in which he gives some great information and behind the scenes memories from filming. The vintage featurette is just that, incredibly vintage. If you can get past the horrid state of the featurette, there is a bit of interesting information, particularly about Japan.
- Commentary by Director Sydney Pollack
- Vintage Featurette Promises to Keep
- Theatrical Trailer
The Yakuza is a unique story and a great film-noir with elements you have never seen. Films like this rely on story and character to propel them forward, while honoring the Japanese culture and traditions. I went into this one not knowing what to expect from a 70’s film starring a relatively unknown, underrated actor, but finished it absolutely loving everything about it. Though the action is sparse, it is the most intense, and real sequences I have ever seen, with a brutal ending fit for such a fantastic film.