Cast & Crew
Harry Kilmer is an ex-soldier who returns to Japan to help his friend George Tanner whose daughter has been kidnapped by the Japanese mafia known as the Yakuza. With limited resources, Kilmer has to turn to his old enemy Tanaka to help him rescue the girl.
Michael D. Moore
The Yakuza -
Films about the yakuza had been going strong in Japan for several years by the time Sydney Pollack directed the first film about the subject for an American studio. Major Japanese studios like Toei, Nikkatsu, and Daiei had their own contributions starting around the start of the 1960s, with directors like Seijun Suzuki, Teruo Ishii, and Kinji Fukasaku now among the most famous progenitors of this crime genre.
However, yakuza films were considered disreputable in Japan when The Yakuza was released in 1975, which even caused an on-set modification for one scene. "There is a scene in the film where Dusty (played by Richard Jordan) asks his girl (played by Christina Kokubo) about the men he has seen with a finger missing," recalled Sydney Pollack at press interviews for the film's release. "We were shooting the scene and the girl had started her lines of explanation when someone on the set interrupted me and said to me, 'A girl like that would never know about the Yakuza.' I needed the scene so I asked if maybe she couldn't have snuck off to see one of the movies secretly. 'Maybe,' my adviser said. So that's why I have the girl shut the door so her mother won't hear her when she talks about the Yakuza."
Kishi Keiko, the love interest of star Robert Mitchum in the film, was particularly difficult to cast. A former leading actress in Japan, she had married a French director and moved to Paris. During a visit to Japan, she initially declined Pollack's offer since she assumed it would be another standard yakuza picture, but her friends urged her to take the part based on the reputation of Pollack, who was in the midst of a hot streak with They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (1969), Jeremiah Johnson (1972), and The Way We Were (1973). In fact, by the time The Yakuza had opened, Pollack was already coming off of shooting Three Days of the Condor and editing it in Burbank for a 1975 release. Pollack also wrote an impassioned letter to Kishi-San about his desire to give her a "depth and complication" beyond the stereotypical representation of Japanese female characters in Hollywood films, and the filmmakers "would do most anything to accommodate your desires."
The script for The Yakuza was originally written by Paul Schrader with story contributions by his brother, Leonard, who later reteamed for Blue Collar (1978) and another exploration of Japanese culture directed by Paul Schrader himself, Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985). This would be the first Schrader film to go before the cameras, but he was also hard at work on other screenplays that would soon see the light of day including Taxi Driver (1976), directed by Martin Scorsese, and Obsession (1976), directed by Brian De Palma and originally penned under the title Déjà Vu. At the time, the only feasible way to see yakuza films in the U.S. was via the official movie theater owned by Toei on S. Main Street in New York, which provided a valuable window for both Schrader and Pollack to become familiar with the Japanese depictions of organized crime. Schrader worked on the script through early 1973, and at the time, Variety reported Robert Aldrich was in talks to direct but had to bow out due to negotiations over participation points. Charles Bronson, Lee Marvin, and William Holden were also listed as leading man considerations before the part finally went to Mitchum. Pollack came aboard in August of 1973 and provided extensive story notes, with Chinatown (1974) screenwriter Robert Towne brought in for a step outline in October and a full rewrite by late November. By the time Towne's final draft was turned in by February of 1974, the script was a bulky 144 pages, which had to be streamlined to keep the film down to a two-hour running time.
In addition to more American actors like Brian Keith and Richard Jordan, the film cast several other notable Japanese actors (thanks to the uncredited participation of Toei) including yakuza film veteran Ken Takakura, who also appeared in Golgo 13 in 1973 and went on to play the other side of the law in Ridley Scott's Black Rain (1989), Eiji Okada from Lady Snowblood (1973) and Woman in the Dunes (1964), and the name most familiar to Western audiences, Hawaiian-born James Shigeta, who made his debut in Samuel Fuller's The Crimson Kimono (1959) and went on to star in such films as Flower Drum Song (1961), Midway (1976), and Die Hard (1988). Oddly enough, both Takakura and Shigeta passed away less than six months from each other in 2014.
The world premiere for The Yakuza was held in Tokyo on December 21, 1974, and Warner Bros. took out full-page ads for the film touting its review in Variety, which called it "a uniquely satisfying thriller, one with substance in its serious consideration of the moral codes we choose to live by with or without ritual." The film's reception was very muted in America with middling box office, but it was better received overseas. In fact, on January 20, 1975, Pollack received a telegram from Sam Fukunaka, international director of the Toei Company, saying the motion picture and television producers association of Japan were overwhelmingly pleased with the film and had voted Pollack the most outstanding U.S. film artist and director.
In the decades subsequent to the release of The Yakuza, the wave of Japanese crime films once derided around the world have since come to be respected as substantial international classics with both the directors and stars now enjoying major cult followings among English-speaking audiences. Likewise, Pollack's film has also enjoyed a dramatic reassessment over the years, with the director himself still citing it as one of his favorites throughout the rest of his life and many devotees of Japanese cinema also coming to appreciate it as a groundbreaking, pivotal work in fusing together the traditions of Eastern and Western filmmaking.
By Nathaniel Thompson
The Yakuza -
This script sold for $300,000 which was the highest amount ever paid for a script at the time.
Martin Scorsese wanted to direct after Mean Streets (1973) but the producers wanted Sydney Pollack.
Released in United States 1975
Released in United States 1975