Wednesday, 2 June 2021

Book & Film:
The Yakuza
by Leonard Schrader

(Futura Books, 1975)

A uniquely ambitious U.S./Japanese co-production, heavily promoted by Warner Bros in the apparent belief that the notion of Japanese gangsters could provide them with some kind of post-‘Enter the Dragon’ East-meets-West cultural sensation, Sydney Pollack’s 1974 film ‘The Yakuza’ was, I think it’s safe to say, not an entirely successful venture.

The movie certainly has some strong plus points - a compelling, Casablanca-ish star-crossed romance played out between Robert Mitchum and Kishi Keiko (the casting of an capable actress who was at least vaguely within Mitchum’s own age range is to be commended); excellent production design, photography and fight choreography (most of this can probably be attributed to personnel provided by production partners Toei); and perhaps best of all, a powerful, characteristically stoic performance from ninkyo yakuza icon Takakura Ken, who could easily have transitioned into a crossover Hollywood career on the strength of his work here, had the film proved a hit.

For the most part though, ‘The Yakuza’ proves a let-down - distant, uninvolving and terminally unexciting, it never really manages to crack the surface of the sinister criminal underworld it purports to be laying bare for American viewers. Whereas we really want to camera to plunge us into the alleyways and dive bars of old Tokyo, blades and bullets flying as our heroes find themselves up to their eyeballs in international intrigue and tangled bushido melodrama, instead we get bland, master-shot heavy scenes set in ex-pat apartments or ornamental gardens, in which aspects of Japanese culture are painstakingly explained to the viewer, as if cribbed from a guidebook somebody skimmed on the flight over.

Emotionally speaking, little in the filmed version of the story really lands the way it should, and for viewers with even the slightest familiarity with actual yakuza eiga (which would admittedly have included practically no one in the film’s original U.S. audience), the movie’s crime and action content proves very weak tea indeed.

Discussing what went wrong with the production in subsequent interviews, co-writer Paul Schrader has diagnosed the problem pretty concisely. He and and his brother Leonard had conceived the project as a violent action movie. Eventual director / producer Sydney Pollack however evinced a strong dislike for / disinterest in filming action, instead expressing a wish to make a more cerebral drama about cross-cultural tensions in post-war Japan.

To the chagrin of genre movie fans the world over, Pollack does not seem to have understood that cultural differences could be effectively explored through action, and the fact that the director had no direct experience of life in Japan before jumping on a plane to begin production does not seem to have helped matters. Hence, we end up with hastily roped in Asian-American actors holding forth about honour and giri whilst gazing into ornamental fish ponds, and a film which comprehensively failed to launch a new golden age of trans-Pacific commercial movie-making. Ah well.

For an insight into how great ‘The Yakuza’ could have been under more favourable circumstances however, I highly recommend tracking down Leonard Schrader’s tie-in novelisation, published by Warner Bros’ paperback imprint in the U.S. and Futura Books in the U.K. Presumably offering a purer vision of the Schrader brothers’ initial intentions for the project, it is, to put it plainly, an absolutely fantastic read. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it is one of the best popular/genre novels I’ve read in recent years.

Somewhat at the gnarlier end of ‘70s airport paperback prose, Leonard’s writing here is raw, pulpy and direct, but it gets the job done. In stark contrast to the movie, he draws us in close to the characters, effectively short-circuiting this reader’s jaded critical faculties to ensure that even the more generic of the thriller plot-twists encountered by retired L.A. private eye and former Tokyo resident Harry Kilmer when he returns to a now-much-changed Japan in search of an old friend’s kidnapped daughter, feel urgent and fraught with personal significance.

Presumably Mitchum had already been cast when Schrader banged out this prose extrapolation of his original story, and Kilmer’s retirement, reluctant tee-totalism and habit of crunching down indigestion tablets all signal that we’re dealing here with a protagonist of a certain age, who is perhaps not in the best of physical shape for undertaking such a gruelling adventure. By contrast, his sidekick/companion on the mission, young punk Dusty Newman - a boring and forgettable character when played by Richard Jordan in the film - really comes alive here, fronting like an escapee from an Elmore Leonard book:

“Twenty-six, husky and brash, Dusty was dressed like a citrus salad: lime-green bellbottoms, lemon-lime shirt and burnt orange army jacket. He was unkempt, grubby and septic, and he didn’t care who knew it. He was everything the well-dressed detective shouldn’t be. He was chasing a turd-brown Buick.”

The function of the relationship between the two Americans is clear. The melancholic Kilmer, an old-hand at Japan having stayed on there after his war-time service, was forced to abandon his true love and return to the U.S. after the return of her hardline traditionalist ‘brother’ (Tanaka Ken - the Takakura character, of course) made their marriage impossible. The taciturn Kilmer has no reason to open up about all this, or indeed to explain the philosophical underpinnings or behavioural peculiarities of Japanese society in general, but the presence of Dusty - the brash, dumb Ugly American and presumed surrogate for the U.S. reader - gives both him and his thinnly sketched, exposition-spouting ex-pat buddies reason to spill their guts and fill in the blanks, educating us in turn.

As readers familiar with their New Hollywood history will be well aware, Leonard Schrader was uniquely placed to pull off the careful, cross-cultural balancing act required for a project like this, having spent much of his adult life in Japan, enthusiastically embracing the nation’s culture after initially arriving there and mastering the language in order to carry out missionary work (an obligation arising from the Schraders’ strict religious upbringing) - or perhaps just to escape the draft, depending on which source you choose to believe.

Captivated by the ninkyo yakuza films he found playing at local cinemas, and particularly by the intractable moral conflicts underpinning their melodramatic plotlines, Leonard appears to have communicated his enthusiasm to his brother Paul - at the time a budding film critic and protégé of Pauline Kael - who, having apparently managed to watch “around fifty” yakuza flicks at Toei’s Japanese language theatre in L.A., soon became one of the first writers to discuss the genre in the English language, penning an influential essay, ‘Yakuza-Eiga: A Primer’, published in Film Comment magazine in January 1974. [You can read it here.]

According to Wikipedia (so take this as you will), Leonard’s involvement with the yakuza meanwhile wasn’t merely limited to the movies, with the years 1969-73 reportedly finding him teaching American Literature at Kyoto University by day whilst “..slipping by night into the subculture of the Yamaguchi-gumi,” whatever that might imply. At around the same time, he met his future wife (Chieko Schrader), so we can perhaps see more than a touch of autobiography creeping into his work here, irrespective of the book’s hard-boiled pulp/genre approach.

Needless to say, this background allows Schrader to engage with this book’s Japanese setting and characters with far greater authenticity and depth than that achieved by Pollack’s film, in spite of his, shall we say, ‘rough-hewn’ prose style and unapologetically macho authorial voice.

The Dusty character in particular gains a compelling character arc here which never quite comes across in the film. Initially dismissive of what he sees as the absurd, masochistic rituals which govern the conduct of tough guy business in Japan, he eventually gets the point (in more ways than one) once shit gets real and he finds himself forced to defend his friend’s extended family from attack.

His fate, as an uncomprehending, Hawaiian shirt-wearing yahoo who meets his end thousands of miles from home, dying in a manner which the solemn Japanese hard cases around him find to be entirely in keeping with their ideals of nobility and self-sacrifice, proves strangely moving, contributing to the impressive head of emotional steam which Schrader manages to generate through the second half of his novel.

Again, it’s difficult for me to really express the extent to which this novel knocked me sideways. What more can I say - I was captivated, to the extent that, when we reach a passage in which an innocent victim is senselessly gunned down, lending Kilmer and Tanaka the impetus they need to put their differences aside and embark on a combined pursuit of bloody vengeance, I found it difficult to even read.

A singularly grim incident, relayed by Schrader with an unusually explicit, unflinching realism which feels entirely necessary to the occasion, this proved a real “close yr eyes and take ten deep breaths before turning the page” kind of moment, the like of which I’ve only very rarely encountered as an adult reader.

Revenge, Schrader is keen to communicate to us here, may be a rather sordid and unedifying concept in the west, but under the precepts of bushido which (in terms of old school / romantic genre convention at least) govern Japan’s underworld, the stakes are rather higher, extending beyond mere personal satisfaction to encompass an almost spiritual sense of blood-drenched cosmic balance. It is a forced immersion into this uncompromising mind-set which sets us up for the novel’s finale - which proves a real show-stopper, let’s put it that way. (As a side note, it is also remarkably similar in tone to the conclusion of John Flynn’s stone-cold revenge classic ‘Rolling Thunder’ (1977), scripted by… Paul Schrader.)

“Kilmer methodically re-checked the ammunition load in each firearm: the .45 had seven big slugs, the .38 six good slugs, the .32 five weak slugs and the shotgun five huge blasts. Total: Twenty-three shots without reloading, but the .32 wasn’t dependable. True total: eighteen good shots. Not enough. The Tono Clan had a fifty-four blade minimum, plus an unknown number of handguns. Stop thinking about it. Rule: expect the best.


Ken silently raised his powerfully muscled right arm and pointed straight ahead through the dark maple branches. Kilmer saw that he was pointing at the open doorway and foyer. Then Ken moved his rigid arm to the right until it pointed at the northern veranda, the small five-fingered maple leaves brushing against his hand. He glanced at the small leaves - frail and limp like the hands of dead children - and lowered his arm. He spoke in a low voice, his words terse and clipped.

‘I go in the front door. You stand over there.’

Kilmer glanced at the open northside veranda.

‘You wait for me to reach Tono and look for those who have the guns. Shoot them first.’

‘All right.’”

Whilst Pollack’s film gives us an exciting and well-executed action sequence to round things off, Schrader’s book considerably ups the ante, delivering a frenzied outburst of grand guignol excess which would be nigh on impossible to convey on film… at least without employing several rotating teams of highly skilled special effects artists over a period of several weeks and sending your entire audience running for the nearest bathroom in the process.

Imagine if you will, a scrupulously detailed, anatomically accurate account of what might actually occur were several dozen men to begin slicing each other apart with katana blades (plus a stream of bullets and the occasional shotgun blast from our gaijin protagonist) in a confined space, and… that’s what we’ve got here, pretty much. And it goes on for pages; the essential, tension-releasing ‘money shot’ of the chanbara genre extended to an absurd - though essentially realistic - extreme. Literary gorehounds take note.

Of course, we couldn’t have expected Pollack (or indeed, any filmmaker) to really bring much of that to the table in a mainstream movie, but, after the bloodshed is over and Kilmer has repaid his (considerable) debts to Tanaka in, shall we say, the traditional yakuza manner, I was disappointed to discover that the filmed version of ‘The Yakuza’ also nixes the nigh-on perfect final scene kiss-off which Schrader’s book gifts us with. This bit is more-or-less spoiler-free, so in conclusion I’ll quote it in full for you, because it’s great. Just imagine this up on screen before the credits roll;

“Amid a flurry of sayonara nods, Kilmer entered the ‘Hijack Inspection’ booth. Ten minutes later, having passed through ‘Customs Clearance,’ he stopped at the ‘Immigration’ counter and handed the official his passport.

The middle-aged official was extremely serious and stern. He glanced at Kilmer rather smugly, confident that Kilmer was a tourist before he checked the visa. Opening the passport, he said, ‘Are you the American tourist?’

‘Yeah,’ Kilmer nodded, ‘I’m the American tourist.’

The stern-faced official checked the passport photo and flipped back to the visa page. ‘Do you have the good time in Japan?’

Kilmer said nothing.

‘Everything ok,’ the official said solemnly, returning the passport and nodding for Kilmer to move along.

Domo,’ Kilmer nodded, tucking the passport in his pocket.

The official, glancing at Kilmer’s lapel, suddenly spotted the bandaged finger-stump and his eyes popped wide open. Unable to contain his curiosity, he blurted out the word: ‘..yakuza?’

Saying nothing, Kilmer turned and stepped through the plate-glass doors into the bright sunshine. Without limping he strode across the runway toward the waiting JAL jumbo jet.”



1 comment:

Doug said...

Not a generally big fan of remakes, but it sounds like you could make a good case for this one, probably with a Japanese director.