[box cover]

The Yakuza

Robert Mitchum: The Signature Collection

Like many films by the Young Turks of the New Hollywood in the 1970s, such as those of Milius, Bogdanovich, and Spielberg, The Yakuza (1974) is, surprisingly, an old man's movie. This is not due to the contribution of the film's director, Sydney Pollack. He was not a part of the '70s Brat Pack, instead coming out of television. Rather, this quality is due to the input of the film's primary screenwriter, Paul Schrader — this was his first produced script (he co-wrote it with his brother, the late Leonard Schrader; it was rewritten by Robert Towne). Like those other '70s students of Ford, Hawks, and Peckinpah, Schrader's early scripts, as well as the films he later directed, showed a marked sympathy for the old, the venerable, the weathered. The Yakuza is also an "old man's film," and the young people in it are awkward, innocent, and doomed. Main among these is Richard Jordan, as Dusty. Jordan, who died in 1993, was something of a cult actor among the young filmmakers, and he was also a favorite of Schrader. His Dusty is the young bodyguard assigned to Harry Kilmer (Robert Mitchum), who is returning to Japan for the first time since the end of the war in order to do a favor for a friend, George Tanner (Brian Keith). Tanner is in trouble with the yakuza, who have kidnapped his daughter as a marker for a debt. However, as Kilmer burrows deeper into the case, he discovers more complexities, not only about Tanner's present, but his own past. Meanwhile, Dusty starts making goo-goo eyes with Hanako (Christina Kokubo), the daughter of Eiko (Keiko Kishi), Kilmer's ex-lover. Hanako teaches Dusty the tea ceremony and about one of the yakuza practices central to the film, the cutting off of the little finger at the first knuckle as a symbolic act of atonement. The Yakuza has an exotic location and an in-depth exploration of an alien culture (born of the Schraders' immersion in Japanese yakuza cinema). But the script by Schrader, who was something of a ür-Tarantino, didn't completely please Pollack, who proceeded to bland it out and make it more "adult." As he explains on the audio commentary track on this disc, the original script was much more in the spirit of the yakuza genre, violent and uncompromising. Pollack's resultant film is, sadly, boring when it should be tense and intense. From its lackadaisical Dave Grusin score to its easygoing framing and editing, The Yakuza epitomizes the lazy, lost, mainstream-TV-influenced film style of the era that the New Hollywood did so much to counteract with their return to classic storytelling techniques. Warner Home Video offers The Yakuza on DVD for the first time as part of "The Robert Mitchum Signature Collection" in an adequate anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) of a not-particularly handsomely photographed film (by Duke Callaghan). The monaural Dolby Digital audio comes in two tracks, English and French, with English and Portuguese subtitles. Extras consist of the vintage promo featurette "Promises to Keep" (19 min.), which is as much travelogue as advertisement, and an audio commentary by Pollack. Sadly, he didn't bother to watch the film again before recording the track, and it shows. In general, though, he explains why he was fascinated by Japanese culture, and he surprises his listeners by admitting that if offered the film today he wouldn't do it. Keep-case, or slimcase in the box-set.
—D.K. Holm



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