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‘The Yakuza’: A terribly underrated Sydney Pollack classic starring Robert Mitchum

By Murtaza Ali Khan

“In a good Mitchum performance, we are never aware he is acting. And it is only when we measure the distances between his characters that we can see what he is doing.” So wrote the late American critic Roger Ebert in one of his reviews of a Robert Mitchum classic.

The great American actor Robert Mithum is perhaps best remembered as the definitive face of hard-boiled fiction in cinema along with Humphrey Bogart. The obvious titles that come to mind are The Night of the Hunter, Out of the Past, Angel Face, The Big Steal, and Farewell, My Lovely, among others. But those who have studied Mitchum’s body of work more closely would vouch for his brilliance outside of his trademark film noir roles as well such as the one he played in The Friends of Eddie Coyle. However, the irony with Mitchum is that his greatest performances didn’t necessarily come in great movies. Ebert summed it up brilliantly, “He [Mitchum] has always been one of our best screen actors: sardonic, masculine, quick-witted, but slow to reveal himself. He has never been in an absolutely great film; he doesn’t have masterpieces behind him like Brando or Cary Grant… But give him a character and the room to develop it and what he does is wonderful.”

Ebert’s above remark reminds one of Sydney Pollack’s The Yakuza – a terribly underrated “Yakuza” classic which stars Mitchum in one of his most iconic screen appearances. For the uninitiated, Yakuza are the Japanese mafia who are quite similar to the Samurai of old in that they adhere to the ideals of pride and honor with the same diligence. In other words, they are the folks you simply don’t want to mess with. In the movie, Mitchum plays a WW-II veteran, Harry Kilmer, who reluctantly returns to Japan after a gap of over two decades in order to retrieve an old friend’s daughter abducted by a Yakuza outfit.

In Tokyo, Kilmer must take the help of the woman he was once in love with to get to a Yakuza veteran named Ken Tanaka, who owes him a debt. Ken despises Kilmer but nonetheless he must help him so as to settle the old debt (Kilmer had protected a close relative of Ken’s after the war in Ken’s absence). Ken and Kilmer succeed in rescuing the girl but things soon begin to get messy for the both of them as they find themselves cornered. The two men are now being hunted by an entire army of the Yakuza. They must join hands, keeping their egos aside; not only for their own sake but also for the sake of those they love.

Mitchum plays Kilmer with his characteristic on-screen charisma. Here is a tough, no nonsense, charismatic man who wouldn’t think twice before sticking his neck out for a friend. But, there is an element of tenderness and vulnerability to him which Mitchum brilliantly succeeds in evoking. To his credit, Mitchum makes Kilmer look more human than a mere caricature. He adds great finesse even to the all-hell-breaks-loose action sequences. No other actor I can think of could inhabit such a violent movie with such an affecting combination of toughness, tenderness, weariness and cynicism: His acting makes the battle scenes work as events instead of mindless spectacle,” Ebert wrote in his 1975 review of The Yakuza. Ken Takakura plays the part of Ken Tanaka (described as a man who never smiles) with scalpel-like precision and complements Mitchum really well. In fact, the chemistry between the two great actors is the movie’s major highlight.

Sidney Pollack’s direction is absolutely topnotch; Pollack succeeds in bringing an element of realism to a Yakuza tale. He balances the action and emotions quite well, giving proper emphasis on human bonds and relations that bind the different characters together. The acting is superb all around. The editing and cinematography are top rate. The action sequences are beautifully choreographed with a special mention of the climactic battle sequence wherein Kilmer and Ken fight over 40 Yakuza men.

Overall, The Yakuza is a magnificent work of cinematic art that certainly deserves more attention than what it has received over the last four decades or so. The movie features one of Mitchum’s all-time great performances. It’s also one of the best films directed by the legendary Sydney Pollack. The Yakuza is an essential viewing for the action movie enthusiasts as well as for the fans of the great Robert Mitchum. Watch it now, if you haven’t already!

Murtaza Ali Khan is an independent film critic based out of Delhi, India. He is the editor-in-chief of A Potpourri of Vestiges and is a regular contributor to The Huffington Post. He has also contributed to The HinduThe QuintWittyfeed, etc. He is on the guest panel for live discussions on the television channel News X. He is Films Editor at Café Dissensus.


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Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine on ‘Travel: Cities, Places, People’, edited by Nishi Pulugurtha, academic, Kolkata, India.

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