Film Noir: The Yakuza


Directed By: Sydney Pollack

Screenplay By: Paul Schrader & Robert Towne from a story by Leonard Schrader

Starring: Robert Mitchum, Ken Takakura, Brian Keith, Herb Edelman, Richard Jordan

Robert Mitchum as a Private Investigator?  It can only be film noir.  Well, not necessarily in this case.  The Yakuza is often cited as a neo-noir in that it utilises the main elements of film noir, but brings modern themes and visuals.

Here we have Private Detective Harry Kilmer (Mitchum) asked by old army buddy Tanner (Keith) to go to Japan and negotiate the safe release of his daughter who has been kidnapped by the Yakuza (essentially the Japanese mafia).

Why he asks Kilmer and why he so readily accepts is revealed as the film progresses.  Much of the film is exposition about the time that Kilmer spent in Japan following the end of WWII.  At times the pace suffers for that, but the violent action sequences that punctuate the film become much more gruesome and carry more impact because of that.

The film also spends a lot of time explaining the codes of conduct of the Yakuza and why a seemingly simple case becomes more and more complex and the violence escalates beyond all control.  It is surprisingly violent and treats the violence in the same cold blooded way it is handed out.

It’s not a “fish out of water” story like Black Rain or Rising Sun: Kilmer is possibly better adapted to life in Japan than the US, so Dusty (Richard Jordan) provides the dumb looks and questions to which all is explained.

But it is engrossing enough to involve the viewer and have a reasonable pay-off that may surprise first time viewers.  The exposition also sinks in, so that when you reach the end of the movie, you are as clued up as Kilmer and understand what must be done.

Mitchum is excellent and looks as world weary as ever and he is more than ably supported by Ken Takakura who is superb as “the one who doesn’t smile”.  Keith and Edelman are adequate, but although their characters go back as far as Mitchum’s and Takakura’s, they seem to lack the depth.  The film has also unfortunately dated quite badly and Pollack’s direction now seems a little leaden and amateurish with some sequences looking mishandled – this may be a sign of the times though and it is quite likely that Pollack’s use of handheld camera in 1974 was seen as cutting edge.

With Schrader and Towne combining to create the screenplay the script is not as tight and the dialogue not as snappy as you might expect.  But they have a hell of a lot of explaining to do throughout and its credit to them that the amount of information coming out of the screen does not seem too much like a lecture on Yakuza culture.

It’s a good film that treats its subject matter with the same reverence that permeates throughout the characters involved.

Noir Cynicism 02/10: although there is some double-crossing, the focus is more on honour and obligation.
Noir Femme Fatale 05/10: Keiko Kishi seems like no femme fatale, but powerful secrets make her not all that she seems.
Noir Anti-Hero 08/10: Mitchum was born for noir and his character here carries enough baggage to visibly weigh him down.
Noir Crime 06/10: kidnapping and gun running soon get pushed aside for something more precious to the Yakuza: honour and respect.  And a lot of violence!
Noir Dough The initial money for guns almost seems insignificant in the end.
Noir Body Count Easily over 30 – it’s almost impossible to keep count in the end
Noir Style 06/10: Neo-noir might be pushing it a bit, but there are some pure noir moments and Mitchum exudes noir style without even trying.



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