THE YAKUZA (1974)

PrintE-mail Written by Luke Spafford

To start, this looks stunning. The transfer to Blu-ray is immaculate- switch Robert Mitchum for Liam Neeson, slow the pace a little by today’s standards and this could have been made yesterday. The opening titles do for tattoos what Maurice Binder did for ‘You only live twice’. The film itself is a little like Tiger Tanaka and Felix Leiter twenty years after the fact. Sydney Pollack’s artistry as a director shines through in every shot and sound choice- guns are loud, swords are silent- giving the impression that swords are implements of precision and firearms mere honourless blunt weapons. The camera cuts away from any physical damage wrought by a blade but gives full face to a Colt .38.

Robert Mitchum is Kilmer, an ex-military man tasked with saving a businessman’s daughter held hostage by a Yakuza clan. Kilmer, in turn, enlists the help of one Tanaka Ken to complete his mission. The first half of the film could be likened to The Bride playing chess with the film's characters, before a proto-John Wick brings the required steel to the stage in the latter part.

The fight choreography, though minimal, is both graceful and visceral. Our lead is as battered and sliced as much as the villains’ lain waste around him. Interlaced with this action are twists in the plot that keep the viewers head spinning like the proverbial top- to further discuss the plot would be to the detriment of the film.

Beware: this is not a film for the fast edited, cross-cutting MTV generation. Some scenes are almost glacially paced, but as mentioned before, the story takes centre stage here over all else. That story is one of debts being owed, paid and in some cases repaid in the name of honour. Wrong-‘uns might just turn out to be Right-‘uns and no one is safe from a bell tolling the death knell.

Shot entirely in Japan, without a whiff of studio, The Yakuza longs for a time when Samurai were still the honorific warriors, now replaced by gangsters as heroes. The crowded backstreets of Tokyo are interlaced with the stark beauty of Kyoto in a snow-dappled scene that must have been part of the inspiration for Tarantino’s two-parter.

The Yakuza is old-school in its delivery, the pacing is slow, but stay with it and you will be rewarded with a payoff that is both startling and touching. Whilst it could be said that The Yakuza is on the very fringes of STARBURST’s sandbox, this film is a stone cold classic. 

THE YAKUZA (1974) / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR: SYDNEY POLLACK / SCREENPLAY: PAUL SCHRADER, ROBERT TOWNE / STARRING: ROBERT MITCHUM, KEN TAKAKURA, BRIAN KEITH, HERB EDELMAN / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW


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