Robert Mitchum is extremely moving in The Yakuza (1974), a modern noir directed by Sydney Pollack, and one of the star's late career triumphs. This elegantly melancholy film is now available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive.
Mitchum is Harry Kilmer, a former private eye who is summoned to Tokyo by former Marine MP buddy George Tanner (Brian Keith), who he knew during the post-war occupation. He asks his friend to help him deal with the machinations of Yakuza members looking for leverage in a gun deal. Settling in with another Marine pal, Oliver Wheat (Herb Edelman), he enlists the help of former Yakuza Ken (Ken Takakura), whom he finds by visiting former lover Eiko (Keiko Kishi), whom he has been told is the man's sister.
Ken resents Kilmer for his relationship with Eiko in the post-war years, but the PI helped to save her and her daughter's life, so he feels a sense of giri, a term meaning he has an unpayable debt to Harry. Things get bloody and complex, and secrets from the past come up to surprise and hurt Kilmer. He gets in over his head quickly, but following Ken's lead, he learns to face his fears with honor and respect for the traditions of the country in which he is a guest.
I'm fascinated by Mitchum's late career work, which has a wonderful gravity and sincerity. Here, as in films like The Big Sleep (1978) and The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973), he is somber and focused. You feel the weight of age on him, but not that he is a fading star. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he never descended into camp or roles that didn't suit his abilities as he aged. Instead, he abandons some of the laconic cool of his younger years to create more realistic and fully realized performances. Both sides of Mitchum are marvelous, even complementary.
In The Yakuza, he is all these things, making you feel his Harry Kilmer right to the core of the man. While it helps to have his background story, as told by Wheat while Kilmer essentially walks to the next chapter of the tale, you almost don't need the information. Mitchum achingly communicates the love and passion of his past and the regrets that have stayed with him over the years.
As Harry barges through paper screens and blows away Yakuza thugs with his gun, you can almost feel the man's shame about his bombastic American ways. In contrast, Ken slides through murderous scenes with his razor-sharp blade, giving the mayhem an almost ceremonial feel.
You get this sense of ceremony and tradition in the film as well. It has a steady, solemn tone that so infuses the proceedings that even the few explosives scenes of violence have an odd feeling of control.
The Yakuza is an interesting title, because this is really a three-hander between Eiko, Ken and Harry. They are not fazed by the violence around them, because it isn't shocking to them; it matches their inner turmoil. Being reunited, they realize they have not resolved their past issues and that they cannot abandon the old ways of thinking in facing them. Harry understands this most of all.
This is such an unusual film. Though it is made up of familiar elements, the pieces are put together with more sensitivity for the characters than the workings of the plot. I think that's what makes it special.
A decent print shows off the muted tones of the cinematography, capturing the details of Yakuza tattoos and hues of the odd splashes of color in a mostly somber setting. The disc includes a fascinating featurette about the film made at the time of its production, a trailer and commentary by director Pollack.
Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.