Sydney Pollack’s The Yakuza was released at a time when depictions of Asia in Hollywood films were either simple vehicles for big stars or grossly Westernized misrepresentations. There are notable exceptions, of course, and The Yakuza is probably one of them. Starring Robert Mitchum as a retired detective returning to Japan for a new case, the film manages to give real playing time to actors who aren’t straight from Hollywood. Chief among these is Ken Takakura, who shines as the conflicted brother of a former love interest of Mitchum’s character.
As was the case with several of his films, Sydney Pollack wasn’t the first director to be attached to The Yakuza. Robert Aldrich, best known for The Dirty Dozen and the brilliant Flight of the Phoenix, was initially slated to reteam with Mitchum after their collaboration on The Angry Hills back in 1959. Aldrich, a fine director, would have done fine with The Yakuza, but it just seems more interesting as a part of the early Pollack filmography. Following Jeremiah Johnson and The Way We Were and preceding Three Days of the Condor, the Tokyo- and Kyoto-set noir provides a nice break from the Redford-starrers.
Mitchum’s Kilmer is enticed back to Japan by a former Marine buddy (Brian Keith) who now deals with a notorious yakuza gangster. As is to be expected within such a relationship, things go awry. People get kidnapped. Kilmer, retired, is the only man who can pick up the pieces. Mitchum is fine in the role, and any one-notedness associated with Kilmer’s character is entirely the fault of the writing. He’s your typical dragged-back-into-the-fray hero, tired but still a fighter at heart, and the role is pretty one-dimensional.
It’s Ken Takakura, again, who gets the meatier role. His sister Eiko is the one Kilmer had a love affair with all those years ago, and Kilmer also saved Eiko’s young child. This inadvertently traps Ken (it’s his name in real life and in the movie) in a really tough position: he’s outraged that his own sister would live with a man he perceives to be his enemy, but he’s simultaneously indebted to Kilmer for saving a member of his family. Unsure of the proper path, Ken disappears into the criminal underground of the yakuza for years. Kilmer’s return and Ken’s involvement in that return provide the best parts of The Yakuza. Also, Takakura gets the badass scene with the katana at the end.
Overall, The Yakuza is a tight film that has as much story to tell in the unsaid implications; the past is important for Kilmer, Ken, and Eiko, and Kilmer’s present return to Japan brings the pains and cracked alliances of decades ago back to the surface. Pollack drapes the Japanese criminal underground in long shadow and moody neon light, and his pacing and framing are phenomenal throughout. An assassination attempt set in a brightly-lit indoor pool is particularly great, both in terms of aesthetic and strong tension. While it’s far from perfect, The Yakuza is a good for a glimpse at an under-appreciated Pollack film from a time when his career was still taking off.