The Yakuza

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The Yakuza
The Yakuza 1975 poster.jpg
1975 US theatrical poster
Directed by Sydney Pollack
Produced by Michael Hamilburg
Sydney Pollack
Koji Shundo
Written by Leonard Schrader
Paul Schrader
Robert Towne
Starring Robert Mitchum
Ken Takakura
Kishi Keiko
Richard Jordan
Music by Dave Grusin
Cinematography Kozo Okazaki
Duke Callaghan
Edited by Don Guidice
Thomas Stanford
Fredric Steinkamp (supervising)
Distributed by Warner Bros.
Release date
December 28, 1974 (Japan)
March 15, 1975 (US)
Running time
123 minutes (Japan)
112 minutes (US)[1]
Country United States
Language English / Japanese

The Yakuza is a 1974 Japanese-American neo-noir gangster film directed by Sydney Pollack, written by Leonard Schrader, Paul Schrader, and Robert Towne. The film is about a man (Robert Mitchum) who returns to Japan after several years away in order to rescue his friend's kidnapped daughter. Following a lackluster initial release, the film has since gained a cult following.


Retired detective Harry Kilmer (Robert Mitchum) is called upon by an old friend, George Tanner (Brian Keith). Tanner has been doing business with a yakuza gangster, Tono (Eiji Okada), who has kidnapped Tanner's daughter to apply pressure in a business deal involving the sale of guns. Tanner hopes that Kilmer can rescue the girl using his Japanese connections.

Kilmer and Tanner had been Marine MPs in Tokyo during the post-war occupation. Kilmer became aware of a woman, Eiko (Keiko Kishi), who was involved in the black market so that she could procure penicillin for her sick daughter. Kilmer intervened on behalf of Eiko during a skirmish, saving her life. After they'd been living together, with Kilmer repeatedly asking Eiko to marry him, her brother Ken (Ken Takakura) returned from an island where he'd been stranded as an Imperial Japanese soldier. Both outraged that she was living with his former enemy and deeply indebted to Kilmer for saving the lives of his (apparently) only remaining family, Ken disappeared into the yakuza criminal underground and refused to see or speak to his sister. Eiko, cautious to do nothing to offend Ken further, broke off contact with Kilmer. Before returning to the US, Kilmer bought Eiko a bar (with money borrowed from George Tanner) which she operates to this day, named Kilmer House in his honor. Kilmer has never stopped loving her.

Ken's debt to Kilmer, giri, is a lifelong obligation that traditionally can never be repaid. Tanner believes that Ken would therefore do anything for Kilmer, including rescuing Tanner's daughter. Traveling to Tokyo with Tanner's bodyguard Dusty (Richard Jordan), they stay at the home of another old military buddy named Oliver Wheat (Herb Edelman). Kilmer visits Eiko at the bar's closing time, seeking to find Ken. Eiko's feelings for Kilmer are clearly as strong as ever. He also becomes reacquainted with Eiko's daughter, Hanako, who is delighted to see Kilmer again. Eiko tells Kilmer that her brother can be found at his kendo school in Kyoto.

Kilmer travels by train to visit Ken at his kendo school. Ken is no longer a yakuza member, but will still help Kilmer. They find and free the girl. In so doing, Ken "takes up the sword" once again, attacking one of Tono's men to save Kilmer. This is an inexcusable intrusion by Ken in yakuza affairs. Contracts on both Ken's and Kilmer's lives are issued. Despite Tanner's protests, Kilmer insists on staying until the danger to Ken can be resolved. Eiko suggests he see Ken's brother, a high-level legal counselor to the yakuza chiefs. Goro (James Shigeta) is unable to intercede due to his impartial role in yakuza society, but suggests Ken can remove the death threat by killing Tono with a sword. The only alternative is for Kilmer to kill Tono himself, by any means (as an outsider, he is not bound to use a sword). Because Kilmer is known to Goro as an unusual gaijin who understands and accepts Japanese values, he proposes that Kilmer now has an obligation to Ken.

After an attempt on Kilmer's life at a bathhouse, he learns that his old friend Tanner has taken out the contract on him. Tanner secretly is broke and owes Tono a huge debt. Dusty discloses that Tanner and Tono are business partners. During a violent attack on Ken and Kilmer in Oliver Wheat's house, Dusty is stabbed to death with a sword and Eiko's daughter, Hanako, is shot and killed.

Seeking advice again from Ken's brother, Goro advises them that they have no choice but to assassinate Tanner and Tono. This will embarrass the partners in the eyes of the yakuza. Goro discloses that he has a "wayward son" who has joined Tono's clan and asks that Ken protect him should he be caught in the battle. In private, Goro then discloses the shocking family secret to Kilmer that Eiko is not Ken's sister but his wife, and Hanako their only child. Kilmer comprehends the true meaning of Eiko and Ken's rift, and Ken's anguish at the death of Hanako, all brought about by his repeated intercessions in their lives.

Kilmer storms into Tanner's apartment and kills him, then joins Ken for a near-suicidal attack on Tono's residence. During a prolonged battle, after Ken kills Tono in the traditional way with a katana, Goro's son attacks them and Ken kills him in self-defense. Bearing the news to his brother, Ken moves to commit Seppuku, but his brother pleads with his brother not to bring more anguish to their family. Instead, Ken performs yubitsume (the ceremonial yakuza apology by cutting off one's little finger). After Ken excuses himself, Goro compliments Kilmer on his adherence to Japanese traditions, and dedication to his family.

Before leaving Japan, Kilmer visits with Ken at home and asks to speak to him formally. While Ken prepares tea, Kilmer quietly commits yubitsume, and when Ken enters the room, waits for him to be seated. Sliding the folded handkerchief that contains his finger to Ken, he says "please accept this token of my apology" for "bringing great pain into your life, both in the past and in the present." Ken accepts, and Kilmer asks that "if you can forgive me, then you can forgive Eiko," adding, "you are greatly loved and respected by all your family." Ken professes that "no man has a greater friend than Kilmer-san," and Kilmer, overcome by emotion, says the same of Ken. Their obligations now apparently resolved, Ken takes Kilmer to the airport, and both men bow formally to each other before parting.




Paul Schrader says the idea from the film came from a letter sent to him by his brother Leonard, who was then living in Japan. Leonard had been watching yakuza films and been impressed by the presence of Takakura Ken and the rituals involved. He thought there was an interesting film to be made about a Westerner who became involved in the yakuza to such an extent he would "make that ultimate sacrifice that is so foreign to a westerner. That is the premise we started out on, trying to create a plot that would result in that situation."[2]

Schrader told the idea to Mark Hamilburg who liked it and paid for the brothers to write it. They spent two months watching films, in particular Toei films at a cinema in Los Angeles. "By the time I started writing, I was thinking like a Toei screenwriter," says Schrader.[2]

They wrote the script in an apartment in Venice over a month, between thanksgiving and Christmas.[2]

Schrader says Hamilburg saw the script "was going to be a hot item: the intensity with which people became interested was clear. He knew he was incapable of handling a high-level auction, so he went to Robin French" to handle the auction.[2] French sold the script for $300,000.

Schrader later reflected:

It's hard to see now, looking back at a film which completely flopped, but it was a very commercial idea. It had a lot of commercial hooks plus a strong love story, rich characters, and an "in" theme. It seemed to have all the elements for a rich, commercial action romance.[2]

Originally, Robert Aldrich was to be the film's director, but Robert Mitchum, who had worked with Aldrich on The Angry Hills (1959), had Sydney Pollack replace him.[3]

Schrader says that Pollack wanted rewrites, notably a "softening" of the Harry character. Schrader says "I was fired, because I was unable to write what Sydney wanted. Sydney and I did not get along well, and he needed someone of his own age, whose work he respected, for feedback."[2] Robert Towne came on to rewrite the film.

Robert Redford was interested in making the film but then decided he was not old enough.[2]


Pollack remarked in interviews on complications of filming in Japan, using Japanese crews and technicians, and adopting techniques and practices of Japanese filmmaking. Beyond language barriers, there were creative approaches that he synthesized into the film for being appropriate for the subject matter.[4]


The Yakuza
Soundtrack album by Dave Grusin
Released July 2005
Length 1:10:22
Label Film Score Monthly
Producer Lukas Kendall
Professional ratings
Review scores
AllMusic[5]4.5/5 stars

The musical score for The Yakuza was composed by David Grusin. The score applies both Western and Eastern musical influences in what director Sydney Pollack described as a way that "felt and sounded Japanese without being too strange for western ears."[6] A soundtrack album was released by Film Score Monthly in July 2005.[7]

Track listing
  1. "Prologue" 2:42
  2. "Main Title" 3:17
  3. "Samurai Source" 2:03
  4. "Tokyo Return" 1:29
  5. "20 Year Montage" 3:28
  6. "Scrapbook Montage / Scrapbook Epilogue" 2:13
  7. "Kendo Sword Ritual / Alter Ego / Night Rescue / Amputation / Amputation (alternate)" 3:19
  8. "Man Who Never Smiles" 1:49
  9. "Tanner to Tono / Tono Bridge / The Bath" 2:27
  10. "Girl and Tea" 1:36
  11. "Pavane" 1:10
  12. "Get Tanner" 1:40
  13. "Breather / Final Assault" 4:43
  14. "The Big Fight" 5:51
  15. "No Secrets" 1:32
  16. "Sayonara" 2:02
  17. "Apologies" 2:09
  18. "Bows / End Title (Coda)" 1:46
  19. "Shine On" 9:47
  20. "Bluesy Combo" 6:20
  21. "20 Year Montage / Scrapbook Montage (film mix)" 5:00
  22. "End Title (film version)" 1:10
  23. "Only the Wind" 2:50


Schrader says the reception to the film was "disastrous. It cost five million and brought back maybe a million and a half."[2]

He felt the casting of Mitchum - which he was "very pleased with" - hurt the movie at the box office and if Redford had played the role "we probably would have made money."[2]

Schrader felt Pollack "directed against the grain of the script. I wrote a violent, underworld film about blood, duty, and obligation. He made a sort of rich, romantic, transcultural film. Either of those films would be interesting if fully realized, but the final product fell between those two stools; neither film was made. It didn't satisfy the audience that came to see the hard gangster world, and it didn't satisfy the JEREMIAH JOHNSON audience - Sydney's audience - which came to see some poetic realism."[2]

Schrader says his biggest regret from the film is that Ken Takakura did not become an international star.[2]

The film received mixed reviews at the time of release and had a lackluster performance at the box office. It currently holds a 54% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, based on 13 reviews.[8]

Roger Ebert gave the film a mixed review, awarding it two-and-a-half stars out of four. While praising the characterization and the performances of Robert Mitchum and Ken Takakura, he criticized the plot as being somewhat difficult to follow and expressed concern over the level of violence: "it's for audiences that have grown accustomed over the last few years to buckets of blood, disembowelments and severed hands flying through the air. It's very violent, and the fact that the violence has been choreographed by a skilled director (Sidney Pollack, who made They Shoot Horses, Don't They?) just makes it all the more extreme."[9]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ The Yakuza on IMDb
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k SCREEN WRITER TAXI DRIVER's Paul Schrader, Thompson, Richard. Film Comment; New York Vol. 12, Iss. 2, (Mar/Apr 1976): 6-19,64.
  3. ^ Lemmon, Elaine (October 2005). "The Question of Authorship: The Yakuza". Senses of Cinema. Archived from the original on May 20, 2011. Retrieved 2009-07-16. 
  4. ^ Elliot Geisinger, Jay Anson (1974). Promises To Keep (Motion Picture). Professional Films. 
  5. ^ Eder, Bruce. "The Yakuza [Original Motion Picture Soundtrack]". AllMusic. All Media Network, LLC. Retrieved October 25, 2013. 
  6. ^ "Music for the Screen: The Yakuza". The Dave Grusin Archive. Retrieved October 25, 2013. 
  7. ^ "Film Score Monthly CD: Yakuza, The". Film Score Monthly. July 2005. Retrieved October 25, 2013. 
  8. ^ "The Yakuza". 19 March 1975. Retrieved 8 April 2015. 
  9. ^ Roger Ebert (1 January 1975). "The Yakuza". Retrieved 8 April 2015. 

External links[edit]