Perhaps You’ve Heard of the Yakuza, the Poison Fists of the Pacific Rim. The Japanese Mafia!
***This Review Contains Spoilers***
At the heart of The Yakuza’s theme of the clash between eastern and western cultures, is that of the two’s opposing views on forgiveness. In Japanese culture, forgiveness is something you must earn. In western culture as preached though Christianity, any action can be forgiven regardless of how heinous; go to a confession box at a church and your sins will be wiped away. The Japanese don’t understand this; as a westerner don’t understand it either. Only towards the end of the film does Harry Kilmer (Robert Mitchum) become fully assimilated into another culture, and truly realise so much pain he has caused to Ken Tanaka (Ken Takakura), and performs the Yakuza ritual of Yubitsume, cutting off his little finger.
I can’t imagine a better choice for the role of Harry Kilmer than Robert Mitchum. I believe his acting experience and background is what brings a great level of sincerity to the role. Throughout his career, he appeared in a number of World War II films, including those about the war in the Pacific and featuring the use of the racial slur “Jap”. It can be an interesting experience seeing classic era actors in roles after the 1960’s that weren’t ensemble disaster movies; movies which contrast the attitudes of their ’golden age’ work. I’ve read Robert Redford was considered for the role but I believe the role was suited for an older, world-weary actor like Mitchum; plus it’s an apt choice casting one of the icons of film noir in this neo-noir. What I also love about the film is the touching love story between Harry and his Japanese love Eiko Tanaka (Keiko Kishi), a love of two people from different worlds made forbidden due to family ties, made all the more poignant with Mitchum being superb at portraying characters who are tough yet also tender.
Hollywood has had a long fascination with the Far East, producing movies which aren’t entirely very thoughtful or sensitive; The Yakuza is the more well-researched effort, to say the least. Yet I could still see the modern day PC patrol will still find something to the uproar about. Cultural appropriation is apparent throughout the film. Westerners Harry Kilmer and his friend Wheat (Herb Edelman) are so engaged with Japanese culture and customs to the point that it is second nature to them; while the Japanese display westernised trends such as the wearing of western clothes, or take the scene in the nightclub in which My Darling Clementine being sung.
The appropriation just doesn’t extend to the characters; the 1970’s Hollywood aesthetic and music is combined with Japanese iconography. Dave Grusin’s score is superb, creating a world alien to westerners and also contributing to one of the classiest films of the 1970’s. The violence is portrayed in a classy, arty tone and not coming of gratuitous with an effective combination of gunfire and katana duels. Also, can a gun still remain in a person’s hand and fire after their arm has been chopped off? Either way, it looks cool.
The Yakuza acts like a time capsule of 1970’s urban Japan, just take the scene in which Harry walks through the streets of Tokyo at night to meet his old love after 20 years. The filmmakers clearly took full advantage of the Japanese locations at their disposal; the Kyoto International Conference Centre in which Harry meets ken’s brother is an incredible piece of architecture and that public bathing room, dam, I want to go there!