Sydney Pollack’s The Yakuza and the complexities of Giri | WhyNot!?JAPAN

Sydney Pollack’s The Yakuza and the complexities of Giri

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Sydney Pollack’s The Yakuza and the complexities of Giri


by Ben Lindstrom-Ives



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    Sydney Pollack the acclaimed film director of notable American movies such as They Shoot Horses Don’t They? (1970), Three Days of the Condor (1975), and Out of Africa (1985), also directed a forgotten and underrated classic of 1970’s cinema The Yakuza (1974). The screenplay was written by Paul Schrader who also wrote the screenplay for Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), and would later direct very memorable films such as Hardcore (1979), American Gigolo (1980), Mishima a Life in 4 Chapters (1984), and Affliction (1999). The Yakuza  stars Robert Mitchum an iconic actor who appeared in earlier Hollywood classics such as Night of the Hunter (1955), Out of the Past, (1947), along with the terrific thriller Cape Fear (1962). The film also stars the Japanese film actor Ken Takakura who appeared in well received Japanese movies such as Abashari Prison (1965), A Fugitive from the Past  (1965), along with Black Rain (1988).



The film is a complex and engaging narrative, one in which the theme of Giri is dominant. Giri is a uniquely Japanese concept of ethical behavior, which states that one is always going to be bound by some sort of strong or potent sense of  ‘obligation’ to your fellow human being. Giri in other words is part of a unique system of ethical and moral codes which have predominated in Japan over the course of a millennium, and continue to sharply define and characterize the Japanese conception of etiquette up to the present day. In the same sort of ways in which devout Buddhists seek to ‘escape’ from the meaningless cycle of life through ‘Nirvana’ or enlightenment through prayer and meditation, many Japanese feel that they must in a sense escape from the cycle of Giri through the complete elimination of debts, and the ultimate fulfillment of obligations without fail.



The story of The Yakuza opens up with a secret meeting held between a group of Yakuza officials in Tokyo. Very little is known about what is being discussed except for a plan to fulfill a very great obligation. The story soon shifts to Los Angeles, where we are soon introduced to Harry Kilmer (played by Robert Mitchum) an ex soldier who is now working as a detective in Los Angeles. Kilmer once served as a soldier in Japan with the U.S. military during the post- World War 11 years from 1945-1949. Kilmer soon receives an unexpected phone call from one of his closest friends in Los Angeles, George Tanner, who served with him in the same platoon in Japan. To his surprise, Tanner informs Kilmer that his daughter has been abducted by members of the Yakuza while his company was conducting business in Tokyo. After hearing this piece of news, Kilmer agrees to Tanner’s plead that he will travel to Japan to ultimately recover his daughter.



Upon arriving in Tokyo, Harry soon observes how the Japan of his memory has now been transformed into ‘an unrecognizable modern and urban landscape.’ Not only has Harry not traveled to Japan for nearly thirty years, but also the vivid memories which he holds of the country no longer matches what he sees in reality. Harry’s roots in Japan ‘indeed’ run very, very deep. He is informed by his friends Dusty and Oliver that his former Japanese partner, Eiko Tanaka is still alive, and is now running a Ryokan in Tokyo called Kilmer’s Guesthouse.



We soon learn that Eiko is a survivor of the horrific fire bombings of Tokyo in 1945, an incident in which more people died than in the combined allied bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. While serving as a soldier in Tokyo, Harry rescued Eiko who was orphaned during this period of time, and out of strong desperation was forced to sell illegal penicillin in the thriving black market of Tokyo at that time. They would soon embark on a long and enduring romance, which persisted until Eiko’s family refused to accept Harry as her new husband. Before he left for Japan, Harry would give Eiko $5,000 to support her. Nonetheless, Eiko’s brother Tanaka Ken felt that it was his part of his Giri to pay back Harry for rescuing his sister. Ken was himself a soldier with the Japanese military, and would serve in the Philippines for seven years. This complex situation, however, put Ken in a very difficult ethical/moral crisis. On the one hand Harry Kilmer was fighting with the ‘enemy’ meaning the United States Military was fighting against the Japanese Army. At the same time, however, Kilmer rescued his sister from facing quick death. This made Ken feel both a strong obligation to pay his Giri back to Harry, and at the same time hate him, as he was fighting for the enemy. This highly complex ethical/existential piece of reality, made Ken feel that he would never succeed in paying back his Giri to Harry. Following the end of the war, Ken would ultimately work as a successful Yakuza boss for many years in Tokyo.



Kilmer after meeting with Eiko at her Ryokan learns that Tanaka Ken may know of Tanner’s daughter’s whereabouts. He soon discovers from her that Ken has moved from Tokyo to a secluded residence in Kyoto. Kilmer hopes that Ken with his Yakuza connections may be able to make successful negotiations to retrieve Tanner’s daughter from Yakuza Boss Tano. As soon as he arrives at Tanaka Ken’s residence in Kyoto, Kilmer discovers that Ken resigned from the Yakuza eight years earlier. Nonetheless his ‘Yakuza’ past has very much characterized much of his life, and continues to haunt him to the present day. As part of his painful obligation which he feels he owes to Kilmer, he agrees to help lead him to one of the residences of Boss Tano who is holding Tanner’s daughter captive. A massacre soon takes place in which Kilmer and Ken shoot up many of Boss Tano’s men. Following this violent and bloody shootout, Tanner’s daughter is found drugged yet nonetheless recovered.



It would seem at first glance that Sydney Pollack’s film would end there, after Tanner’s daughter is rescued by Harry Kilmer and Tanaka Ken. That is certainly not the case!!  In fact the rescue of Tanner’s daughter only marks the true beginning of Pollack’s film. In the rest of the film, Kilmer soon realizes that he has gotten a little more than what he had originally bargained for. After the massacre of some of Boss Tano’s men along with the rescue of Tanner’s daughter, Kilmer soon realizes that he himself has become fully involved in the cycle of Giri. Be careful  what you wish for!! Many twists and turns soon come to evolve in Pollack’s film, and Harry himself becomes an utterly transformed character as he struggles to deal with the Giri which he has accumulated thanks to his actions. I will not say anything more about the plot, as it would defeat the purpose of watching and fully appreciating the film.



 I felt that Pollack’s The Yakuza is one of the best ‘western’ made narratives about a very specific side of Japan’s criminal underworld. Aided by Paul Schrader’s heavy existentialist screenplay with many surprises, and twists and turns along the way, Pollack’s film is fascinating, yet quite challenging to watch. It is a film in which you must devote your whole attention, in order to fully understand what is happening in the story. It seems to be quite an influential film as well, in terms of popularizing Japan as a subject in Hollywood films. The film’s visual style, specifically its martial arts violence, saturated colors, and jazz soundtrack, seems to have strong echoes in later films such as Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill Saga (2003-2004), John Woo’s Hard Boiled (1989), along with Tony Scott’s True Romance. Both a memorable and influential work or American existentialist cinema, I highly recommend this film both to those who are interested in seeing one of the classics of 1970’s American cinema, and for those who have a strong interest in Japanese culture and ethical customs. This is all in all, a film which should not be missed.




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