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Friday, January 7, 2011

Friday Film Buff: Sworn Brotherhood

The Mafia is a subject that has fascinated American movie culture for decades from the original Scarface to The Godfather films to Goodfellas, the strong family bonds, strict code of honor, and violent retributions are pretty much a guarantee of box office sales.
A similar crime organization that is far less well-known is the violent and highly traditional Yakuza of Japan, who adhere to a code of honor as strictly as the Samurai to Bushido. The Yakuza have appeared in some American films like Black Rain and Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill franchise, but it is more prevalent in Japanese cinema, just as our Mafia films are here.
One of my favorite American-made films about the Yakuza is the aptly-titled The Yakuza (1974) directed by Sydney Pollack and starring Robert Mitchum and Ken Takakura. The script was written by brothers Leonard and Paul Schrader and fetched the then-unheard-of price of $325,000. Since it wasn't my money, I'm not really in a position to say that it was worth it, but I will say it's pretty darn good.
The story follows Harry Kilmer's (Mitchum) return to Tokyo where he had been stationed as an MP in the Marines after World War 2. A friend's daughter has been kidnapped by a Yakuza gangster in retaliation for a business deal gone bad, and the friend (Brian Keith) wants Kilmer to use his connection with an old associate (Ken Takakura) to get the girl back.
I think that this is a fascinating look into the Yakuza underworld as well as a fine action film. There are some great fight sequences as well as stirring emotional drama. I think the film is very respectful of both the Japanese and Yakuza cultures, but I'm not an expert. If there are any experts out there who've seen this film, I'd be curious to hear your insights.
The Yakuza is not a film that immediately comes to mind when mentioning Robert Mitchum or Sydney Pollack films, but I really think it should. Ken Takakura is known as "the Clint Eastwood of Japan" and with good reason. His performance is simmering.
I had some difficulty finding a trailer for this film - like I said, it's not well known - but I did find that a fellow fan on YouTube had made his own trailer for the film, in the modern Hollywood-style. It's pretty cool:

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