The Yakuza (1974)

Directed by Sydney Pollack

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“A Yakuza pays his debts/A Yakuza does his duty/A man without debt/A man without duty/Is not a man.”

This is the song sung midway through Sydney Pollack’s The Yakuza and which sums up the philosophy which guides the characters of the film.  It’s an eastern philosophy into which the western character, Harry Kilmer (Robert Mitchum) becomes ingratiated.  He is a fish out of water, a man to whom the sense of obligation must be explained, and who by the end takes part in a ritual that ties him to this philosophy.

Structurally The Yakuza is not much different than other noir detective films.  A character is pulled into a plot based on a request, in this case to track down his friend’s kidnapped daughter.  That storyline is resolved less than forty minutes into the film, but because of what was required to save the kidnapped daughter, the main character must then deal with the consequences.  It’s a thickly tangled web of retribution, guilt, contract murders and, in the end, family.

The other thing to note here is that this was Paul Schrader’s first screenplay, though rewritten and restructured by Robert Towne.  Of all the central people involved, between Schrader, Towne and Sydney Pollack, this feels most of all like a Paul Schrader movie.  It’s success enabled him to sell his script for Taxi Driver, and the guiding principles of this movie can be seen through so many of his others.

Kilmer is a solitary figure, like Travis Bickle, Yukio Mishima and Ernst Toller.  He has no family and no real guiding philosophies except, as it usually goes for noir detectives, money.  He will enlist the help of Ken (Ken Takakura), a onetime member of the yakuza who owes him a favor.  That’s because Kilmer, during his time in Japan during the occupation after the end of World War II, fell in love with Eiko (Keiko Kishi), Ken’s sister, and helped saved her daughter’s life.  When Ken found out, he was torn, still regarding Kilmer, an American, as his enemy and yet owing his life to him.

Though Ken might like to kill Kilmer, as another friend of his suggests, he is bound by his sense of obligation to repay his debt.  Together they save the woman they set out to find, but in doing so Ken kills a man and incurs the wrath of other yakuza bosses.

Kilmer decides not to leave Japan until he can help Ken fend off the men who would have him killed.  For his part Ken does much the same for Kilmer, eventually referring to him as family.  The two solitary men fight off those who want them dead and in the process look at the other as a brother.  By the end they will have similarly maimed their pinky finger, a yakuza ritual of penance.

As a character Harry Kilmer is full of despair, but he finds meaning in the eastern philosophy which guides Ken and many others.  Their sense of duty and obligation helps lift him, to some degree, from his despair and yet it’s this same sort of code which in later Paul Schrader movies seems intertwined with their despair.

In Taxi Driver and First Reformed, for example, Bickle and Toller channel their despair into neat methods of self-destruction.  They find glory, even if from no discernible person, in a particular mission.  That mission, however, is tainted by the troubles which preceded it.  It’s born out of a distressing void that they struggle to fill.  You see it too in Schrader’s Affliction, in which the main character, played by Nick Nolte, finds unwarranted meaning in an accidental death that he believes must be murder.  We see the ways in which he jams together puzzle pieces that don’t fit, so that he might believe in something to contrast with the utter chaos that is the collapse of the rest of his life.

These characters are silent men in lonely rooms grappling with something and turning it into a philosophy.  And yet we, as the audience, never share in their philosophy because we know there is something forced, unnatural about it.  It’s a delusion rather than a principle.

But in The Yakuza Harry Kilmer finds salvation in this new code of his.  That might just be because it ties him tangibly to another person, his “brother” Ken.  It brings them together and tethers him to something made of flesh and bone, something and someone that can be felt and interacted with.  You get the sense that should Ken die or disappear, that Kilmer would channel all his emotion into something as destructive as the other Schrader characters.

Of course that’s not to say that this movie isn’t destructive, because it is.  It’s just that Kilmer’s transformation, as I perceived it, takes place after the massacre which ends the film.  For the end of that climactic fight, in fact, he cowers in a corner, holding his breath while Ken fends off the movie’s villain.  He hasn’t yet been killed and reborn, a contrast to those movies like Taxi Driver and First Reformed in which the transformation precedes the violent finale.

Up Next: Absence of Malice (1981), The Way We Were (1973), The Last Black Man in San Francisco (2019)

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