Back in the 1970s, the late, great, Sydney Pollack made a movie that could be overlooked as a typical grindhouse B-Movie, with its cheap and grainy film stock, its OTT sound track and its shady choice of subject i.e. the Japanese mafia or the Yakuza. But the film taps into a number of themes that are far more subtle and delicate than your typical 70s action movie, a code of honor that unites two very different cultures, a code which is dwindling and leaving both parties alienated from and confused by the onrush of modernity.
Robert Mitchum plays Harry Kilmer, a former U.S. soldier who has lived in America after serving a long stint in Japan. Back in the States, Harry is confronted by his friend and business associate, George (Brian Keith), who begs Harry to return to Japan to save his daughter, who has been abducted by his deadly Asian business partners, the Yakuza.
Last time Harry was in Japan, he was a strapping young soldier who stayed in Japan after the war, settling down and falling in love with a young and beautiful woman (Eiko, played by Keiko Kishi) he saved from a group of thugs. On his return, he is approaching 60, respectful of but out of touch with modern Japan, no longer an occupying solider, but a guest at the mercy of Japanese hospitality (which is friendly and fatal to Harry in equal measures). Eiko too has changed, no longer a helpless damsel in distress, but a respected and independent mother and business owner, whilst still being charming and beautiful enough to melt Harry’s heart all over again.
Another man struggling to adjust to this “new” Japan is Ken (Ken Takakura), bound by a code of honor that his country has seemingly forgotten, Ken is portrayed as the steely faced brother of Eiko, a man bound to respect Harry for saving his “sister” even though he barely conceals his hatred for the burly American. A complex and injured character, wrapped in a demeanor of calm aggression, finding out the true extent of Ken’s self-sacrifice is one of the films hidden gems.
The movie is extremely respectful towards all levels of Japanese society, even portraying the Yakuza as businessmen, not lowly crooks. There may be a horde of low ranking foot-soldiers for Harry and Ken to cut through (literally in the case of the katana wielding Ken), but it isn’t the Japanese lords who come across as ruthless, but their American counterparts.
The action of the movie is great fun, again showing the juxtaposition between Japanese and American culture, Ken with sleek Samurai like grace and Harry unstoppable dual wielding shotguns. Some may find it hard to look past the wobbly sets and intrusive boom-mic that sometimes sneaks into shot, but for a view on how two cultures can clash but still co-exist, as they both enter an age they are unfamiliar and uncomfortable with, The Yakuza is a great insight and a fun movie to boot.