Pay it Backward–The Yakuza (1974)
“A Man Never Forgets. A Man Pays His Debts.”
The Yakuza –Tagline
An action film of uncommon sensitivity, The Yakuza is all about upholding a code of honor and responsibility. As mentioned in the tagline, this a film centered on the ideals of debt and obligation, which is the fundamental social matrix of Japanese culture. However sensitive the film is to Japanese culture and subculture, the film’s point of view is decidedly an American one: our hero is a WWII vet-turned private eye named Harry Kilmer, portrayed by noir star Robert Mitchum.
Kilmer is sent to Japan to rescue the daughter of war buddy/illegal arms profiteer George Tanner, kidnapped after a deal with some Yakuza strongmen soured. Kilmer owes Tanner from their war days. To pay Tanner back and rescue his daughter, Kilmer cashes in on a debt that he is owed by Tanaka Ken. Tanaka is initially wary of Kilmer’s request. As a former Yakuza trying to leave his criminal past behind him, tracking down Tanner’s daughter will require him to take up the sword again, threatening his relatively peaceful life as a martial art instructor in Kyoto.
Tanaka agrees because of the central debt of the film, the one he owes to Kilmer for saving his sister, the alluring and charming Eiko, from poverty and certain death during America’s post-war occupation. Kilmer quickly fell in love with Eiko and repeatedly asked her to marry him when he was in the service; he wastes no time doing so again when he returns twenty years later. She is humbled and obviously torn, but refuses because Tanaka forbids her from marrying this gaijin, especially one that was a former enemy. But even twenty years later, a man never forgets and a man pays his debts, and thus Tanaka ignores their complicated history and leads Kilmer through the intoxicating and peculiar world of Japan’s criminal syndicates.
Both Tanaka and Kilmer are old school relics abiding to their respective codes of honor. In the world of The Yakuza, a man is not only as good as his word and the debts he pays, but also how he pays them. The final reveal of the movie—that Tanaka is actually Eiko’s husband and not her brother–points to the already high price Tanaka has paid before Kilmer comes to collect on his favor. That, for twenty years, though grateful for Kilmer saving Eiko’s life, Tanaka lived at a constant distance from his family, spurned that Eiko found love and security from the enemy, speaks volumes about his idea of honor, loyalty, and manhood.
In a sense Kilmer has also lost Eiko and Hanako. Though easily pushing fifty, he has no real family to speak of. When honorable men are stripped of their ideal lives, The Yakuza seems to argue, all that’s left are ideals. These two nowhere men are thus thrust on a journey of bloodshed and survival for these ideals.
As in most real world political situations, it’s the American that fucks things up. By bringing Tanaka back into action, to save the daughter of his double-crossing war buddy George Tanner, Kilmer has not only ended the fragile peace Tanaka negotiated for his release from the Yakuza, he has put his estranged family in the crosshairs.
Although the film contains visceral scenes of swordsmanship and gunplay, director Sydney Pollack choreographs his actors in a ballet of violence far removed from the usual action movie tropes. Instead these set-pieces unfurl with a natural grace that buttress the story’s theme of honor and obligation. Though there are extreme, even borderline absurd, displays of graphic violence, to satisfy those who came to watch a movie about mothafuckin’ guns and mothafuckin’ swords.
While The Yakuza functions on many levels—as a gangster flick, as a neo-noir, as an examination of post-war American-Japanese relations—where it really succeeds, what forms the central core of the movie, is the uneasy relationship of Tanaka and Kilmer. Tanaka, in true Japanese style says very little, and Kilmer, in true noir style, says just enough. But both express deep amounts of vulnerability, as the more you watch the more you realize how much both men have already paid for their meager existences.
Though Tanaka’s arc is a bit cliché—old gangster trying to get straight gets sucked back into the life—his story is rather poignant. The title of the movie, you come to realize, refers not to the Yakuza organization that Kilmer cracks through, a shotgun in one hand and a .45 in the other, with his Japanese sidekick swinging swords, but to Tanaka specifically, who is forever lost and only has his rituals to fall back on. For example, after the big action climax where he is forced to kill the wayward son of his oyabun in self-defense, Tanaka commits yubitsume, cutting off his pinky and presenting to his mentor as means of prostration. Tanaka has completed the Yakuza transformation and will have to live with a mark of shame for the rest of his life.
The final scenes of the film end on another instance of yubitsume. Blind to the fact that Tanaka is actually Eiko’s estranged husband for most of the film, Kilmer realizes, after all the bloodshed, what immeasurable suffering he has caused. While Tanaka is preparing tea, Kilmer cuts his right pinky off and presents it in a kerchief. “I’ve brought you great pain, both in the past in the present” he says, pushing the digit across the table.
For most of the film, Kilmer’s distinctly American swagger belies his knowledge of the Japanese people. He is more content to bang-em up than follow a set of strict cues. Kilmer’s act of yubitsume is not only an act of apology, it is a kind of transformation as well; it is a recognition–even approval–of the high codes of honor embedded in Japanese society. Although both men will part ways, they are forever linked not only by the woman they both loved, but also by this ritual act of yubistume.
At times The Yakuza feels especially modern and jazzy , with its sly montages, seedy locations, and a crackerjack performance by its American star. Marrying the genres of American noir with Yakuza pictures, the filmmakers have made a product that is spectacular, sophisticated, and bloody. Yet for all its flourishes and its panache, The Yakuza is a gangster flick in classical Hollywood filmmaking style. Beyond orchestrating action scenes with grace and verve, Sydney Pollack shoots the film with such intelligence and restraint, making The Yakuza’s few explosive elements all the more volatile.
Somewhat of a hit when it was released in 1974, The Yakuza is little remembered today, if only as the film that made Taxi Driver writer Paul Schrader a Hollywood bad boy. Which is a shame; in addition to being an incredible action film, The Yakuza is easily one of the best movies from the fertile filmmaking period of the 70’s. Schrader’s original pitch–The Godfather meets Bruce Lee–is indicative of his original aim. But the resulting film, written with his brother Leonard and Robert Towne, and as directed by Sydney Pollack, oftentimes outdoes The Godfather in depth, subtext, and style.