Sydney Pollack’s ‘The Yakuza’: The Merging of Two Worlds in a Timeless Gangster Classic


By Sven Mikulec

The significance of Sydney Pollack’s 1974 neo-noir gangster film The Yakuza lies not only its sharp script, great acting from Robert Mitchum, Ken Takakura and Kishi Keiko or gritty, uncompromising visuals that give the picture an authorial stamp and gripping atmosphere, but also in the historical and cultural role it played at the time of its release. Being the first film on Japanese crime milieu produced by Western studios, The Yakuza broke the ice and opened up the Far-Eastern culture to our world. Portraying the confrontation of Japanese traditional values with modern influences arriving in the country through the United States’ economic support in the post-WW2 era, Pollack’s film itself is an embodiment of the clash given birth by intertwining two separate, distinct ways of life and ultimately even ways of filmmaking. The Yakuza, a story of an American returning to Japan to save his friend’s kidnapped daughter, was not simply an American film about Japan’s culture and gangster circles. It was made with abundant help from Japanese film crew members, it stars numerous excellent Japanese actors and, not to be forgotten, it was written by somebody with enough first-hand experience to know what he’s talking about.

Paul Schrader penned the script with his brother Leonard, a Japanophile who fled to Japan in order to avoid being drafted to Vietnam. Leonard worked as a teacher of English Literature in Kyoto, in his spare time cruising bars and spending time with the Yamaguchi-gumi, the most powerful Yakuza family in the area. His intention of writing a book on the experience was halted by the persistence of his brother Paul, eager to succeed in Hollywood. Paul convinced him to help him turn the story into a screenplay. Sydney Pollack was chosen to sit in the director’s chair, Mitchum was handed the lead role and the film’s success, even though the domestic box-office results were hardly impressive, allowed Paul to have his previously written Taxi Driver’s screenplay get greenlit. It’s interesting to note that Pollack decided to bring in Robert Towne (Chinatown) to rewrite the Schraeder brothers’ screenplay, allegedly to humanize Mitchum’s lead character. We’re proud of the fact we’ve managed to acquire both copies of the script, displayed for your perusal. Examine the creation of this timeless gangster classic, delve into its creative process and remind yourselves of how much talented Schrader and Towne actually are.

Screenwriter must-read: Paul Schrader & Robert Towne’s screenplay for The Yakuza [PDF1, PDF2]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.

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Martin Scorsese read The Yakuza, a speculative script sold in a spectacular bidding war in Hollywood in 1974. He wasn’t the director Paul Schrader wanted, however; according to Peter Biskind, Schrader wanted a “Tiffany” director. At this point, Scorsese did not for Schrader occupy a place on that particular list. Schrader’s older brother Leonard had been in Japan since 1968. He returned to the United States in 1972 when the Vietnam draft was no longer a likely prospect for him. He had been teaching English for a college he described as a Berkeley equivalent, until student revolution closed it down and he spent most of his time in nightclubs, becoming acquainted with Japanese gangsters, or yakuza. He wanted to write a novel about them, but Paul persuaded him to write it first as a screenplay, getting an advance of $5,000 through his own agent. He described it as “The Godfather meets Bruce Lee.” —A Question of Authorship: The Yakuza



Paul Schrader, the author of Taxi Driver, knew a thing or two about urban stories and gangster movies when he penned a now classic essay on Japanese gangster films for the New York magazine Film Comment in 1974, a ‘primer’ for an understanding of Japanese gangster movies.

The important thing to remember about strict genre forms like yakuza-eiga is that these films are not necessarily individual works of art but instead variations on a complex tacit social metaphor, a secret agreement between the artists and the audiences of a certain period. When massive social forces are in flux, rigid genre forms often arise to help individuals make the transition. Americans created the Western to help codify a morality of the frontier; they created a gangster film to cope with the new social forces of the city.

If the original social metaphor is valid, the resulting genre will long outlive the individual artists who created it-it may even outlive the times which evolved it. In the present personality-oriented culture, rigid genre forms are the closest thing we have to a popular ”art without names.” When a new genre comes into being, one immediately suspects that its causes run far deeper than the imagination of a few astute artists and businessmen. The whole social fabric of a culture has been torn, and a new metaphor has arisen to help mend it.

The social structure of Japan has in fact been severely disrupted in recent years. Westernization, the rapid rise of Japanese capitalism, and the emergence of Japan as an economic superpower have further challenged those tattered traditional Japanese virtues which were able to survive the war, MacArthur, the Occupation.

The yakuza-eiga is a popular social contract between the artists and the audiences of Japan to reevaluate and restructure these traditional virtues. The Samurai Film was no longer serving its intermediary function; new characters, themes and conventions had to be created. Just as early twentieth century Americans needed the Western, contemporary Japanese need a genre which can serve as a moral battleground—a genre on which the traditional virtues can fight to the death. —‘Yakuza Eiga: A Primer’ by Paul Schrader, Film Comment, Jan/Feb 1974



“East meets West in an early outstanding effort from Sydney Pollack. Not only does The Yakuza (1974) marks the first collaboration between Pollack and Jazz Pianist Dave Grusin, it’s also a great essay in civilization clash as the participants react through their respective cultural perception. Only one American character, Harry Kilmer (portrayed by Robert Mitchum; 56 at the time), gets the inner workings of Japanese society correctly and is able to bring the film to a dramatic satisfying end. Based on an original script by Leonard & Paul Schrader (future writer of Taxi Driver & Ragging Bull) with a major assist by Robert Towne (Chinatown), The Yakuza didn’t score at the U.S. box-office upon its March 1975 release (the film was actually finished months prior in the Fall of ’74); it did however find an audience in Europe and is now considered a classic.

In addition of Ken Takakura’s bravura performance (foreshadowing his participation, fifteen years later, in Ridley Scott’s Black Rain), Dave Grusin’s musical score brings both cultures to a standstill with a superb main theme (for the love+honor aspect of the story) surrounded by an introspective approach fitting the host society. Japanese instruments abound in the sparse action cue THE BIG FIGHT where the score plays against the picture; creating a surreal energy of its own by adhering loosely with the action on screen (featuring shakuhachi recordings done in Japan during the shoot, those were later regurgitated by Grusin who authored a coherent musical envelope; the final result, recorded in Los Angeles, including the talents of Percussionist Emil Richards and Bass Flute Player Jerome Richardson, is of such otherworldly character that it defies western film music. Except for a brief Grusin touch, The Big Fight ranks itself as a product of Japanese cinema). Both as a film and a score, The Yakuza is a visionary effort.” —Pierre André Lowenstein




“I’m really proud of that picture. It still gets a lot of play at revival houses and cinematheques. I ended up having to stage every bit of the action sequences. I had no help. I got there and I was like ‘Where’s the telescoping swords you use in the sword fights?’ They said “We don’t have telescoping swords. We just use a bamboo sword with tin foil over it.” I said, ‘Well, how do you guys do all those great sword fights in your movies?’ Mitchum says (imitating him) “Pay ’em.” (laughs) All the fight coordinators were just terrible. Warner Bros. was very nervous about the picture, so I made a deal with the number three studio as opposed to the best one, a place called Tohei Studios, which was known for really cheesy B-pictures. It all worked out in the end, I guess. I haven’t seen that picture for 25 years. I don’t see any of my pictures once I’m done with them.” —Sydney Pollack: Hollywood’s Quiet Icon


Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Sydney Pollack’s The Yakuza. Photographed by Hiroji Kubota © Warner Bros. Courtesy of Magnum Photos. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.


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