You will no doubt have read the sad news in many other places by the time you read it here, but if you haven’t seen it yet, go take a look at Sydney Pollack’s obituary. 

I’m hardly qualified to comment much on Pollack’s career, having seen few of the movies he directed, and even fewer of those which he acted in, but I can comment on one of them.  Since it’s one of the movies which ends up in the “other stuff” list in his obituary, maybe the contribution is worth making — lots of people will talk about Out of Africa or Tootsie or Michael Clayton, but not so many, I guess, will talk about The Yakuza.

Sydney Pollack directed The Yakuza in 1974.  Like Shogun five years later, it was an American/Japanese co-production, and most of it was actually shot in Japan.  I first saw it on video in 1985 or early 1986.  On the shelf, it looked like just another action movie, but I was particularly curious about the Japanese element (having just recently become fascinated with Japanese history and culture). 

I wasn’t expecting all that I found — the carefully layered plot full of double-crosses and genuinely unexpected twists, the depth of the characters, the explanations of and real respect paid to the Japanese culture and traditions which underlie the story.   One of its themes — a fall from grace and the effort to achieve redemption — is one of my favorite kinds of story.

And so many of the elements of the film just plain work, even if on the surface you might not expect them to:  casting Robert Mitchum in the lead, Brian Keith as a bad guy, a triple clash of culture (American vs. old Japan vs. new Japan), a score by Dave Grusin.  Under Pollack’s guiding hand, it all works.  The Yakuza became one of my favorite movies, though I rarely had a chance to see it again, until last year when it (finally!) came out on DVD.

The film further fueled my interest in Japanese culture and was a direct influence in quite a bit of my writing, particularly my work in the Chamber of Mystery game and my original and principal character in the ISA Phoenix game, Yoshino Marina.  It led me to Zatoichi, Lone Wolf & Cub (the movies and the manga), and Musashi.  A novel still only in my head, about a cursed katana, probably owes its conception to The Yakuza.  And there will no doubt be more, as the years go by.

Many of the people involved with the movie are gone now, sadly — Pollack, writer Leonard Schrader, Mitchum, Keith, Richard Jordan — but some are still around, including the Japanese leads Takakura Ken and Kishi Keiko, writers Paul Schrader and Robert Towne, and composer Grusin.

When looking up The Yakuza on the Internet Movie Database, I learned that there is a remake in the works; with all respect to those working on that movie, I hope it’s never finished.  Sydney Pollack’s The Yakuzais an oft-overlooked masterpiece — better that it stay such, and be left to stand on its own.  If you haven’t seen it, at least go rent The Yakuza — even if you aren’t normally one for action movies, this one will be more than worth your time.



A man never forgets. A man pays his debts.
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