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Film / The Yakuza

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Top to bottom: Eiko, Kilmer, Ken
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The Yakuza is a 1974 film directed by Sydney Pollack. (Retired) detective Harry Kilmer (Robert Mitchum) goes to Japan to help out an old friend, George Tanner (Brian Keith), who had been dealing with the yakuza. The yakuza had kidnapped his daughter and her boyfriend to coerce Tanner into a business deal.

Harry and Tanner's friendship goes back to World War II, when they served together as Marines in Japan. While in Japan, Harry had fallen in love with a local woman, Eiko, and helped save her sick daughter. Eiko's brother Ken was disgraced by his sister's relationship with a former enemy soldier and he disappeared into the yakuza underworld. However, since Ken owes a lifelong debt (called giri in the movie) to Harry, he reluctantly joins them to help rescue Tanner's daughter.

They successfully rescue the hostages, but in doing so they anger the yakuza and contracts on Ken and Harry's lives are issued. Harry refuses to abandon Ken and his family while their lives are in danger, defending them from yakuza attackers, but he eventually learns how much pain his presence in their lives has caused them. Despite this, Ken and Harry overcome their differences, helped by Harry's openness to Japanese tradition.

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The film emphasizes Japanese tradition and honor among the yakuza, and remarkably has two yubitsume scenes.

The film was written by Paul Schrader and his brother Leonard. Paul would notably go on to write Taxi Driver. Rewrites were also undertaken by Robert Towne who wrote Chinatown.

If you went to this page hoping for a page describing the yakuza, sorry. It's here.


The Yakuza provides examples of:

  • Born in the Wrong Century: Ken, according to his brother.
  • Camping a Crapper: Subverted; several Yakuza thugs follow Ken into the mens room of a nightclub. He's waiting for them behind the door, but they only want to talk.
  • Chekhov's Boomerang: Hanako tells Dusty about Yubitsume, the yakuza custom of cutting one's finger. Later, we see Ken following this tradition and cutting his finger in front of Goro. Then, Kilmer also cuts one of his fingers to apologize to Ken.
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  • Clothing Damage: Ken has a Shirtless Scene by the end of the Final Battle.
  • Conservation of Ninjutsu: Ken and Kilmer vs. yakuza goons
  • Culture Clash: Even if Kilmer knows Japan very well, he is still surprised by the sense of honour of yakuza.
  • Did Not Get the Girl: Kilmer goes back to the US and gives Eiko's love up because he has heard that she was Ken's wife.
  • Disposable Woman: Hanako is killed by Tono's henchmen. Ken and Kilmer avenge her death.
  • Door Slams You
  • Face–Heel Turn: Tanner betrays Kilmer. Kilmer repays him with several bullets.
  • Fedora of Asskicking: The Yakuza man who holds Eiko at knifepoint. It hides the spider tattoo on his forehead, revealing that he's Ken's nephew.
  • Fire-Forged Friends: Subverted; it's not until Kilmer's act of atonement that Ken can truly accept his friendship.
  • A Friend in Need:
    • Kilmer decides to help his friend Tanner when he hears that his daughter was kidnapped.
    • Even if he is not his friend, Ken decides to help Kilmer in his quest. Then Kilmer wants to help Ken when he is the target of the yakuza. Ken and Kilmer will become friends by the end of the movie.
  • Guns Akimbo: Kilmer wields a Colt .45 with a .38 pistol while storming Tanner's office or a double-barreled shotgun (for the Final Battle).
  • Hardboiled Detective: Only Bogart could do better than Mitchum here.
  • Heel–Face Turn: Dusty admits that he knew all along what Tanner was up to, and asks to make it up to Kilmer.
  • Honor Before Reason: Ken should not accept to help Kilmer, because it would put his own life in danger. Yet he accepts, because he thinks that he owes a debt to him (giri).
  • I Have Your Wife: Tanner's daughter is kidnapped by the yakuza as leverage for a deal.
  • Improvised Weapon: Ken knocks down several yakuza with a bicycle!
  • It's Personal: After Hanako's death, revenge against Tono and Tanner becomes an absolute necessity for his adoptive father (Kilmer) and his biological father (Ken).
  • Katanas Are Just Better: The yakuza use it prominently.
  • Loophole Abuse: According to Yakuza tradition, Ken must kill Tono with a sword. However there's no such restraints on Kilmer, who can use firearms to hold off Tono's numerous bodyguards.
  • Love Triangle: After The Reveal, we understand that Ken is Eiko's husband, so there is a love triangle between them and Kilmer.
  • Meaningful Echo: "Please accept this token of my apology."
  • Mighty Whitey: Averted in that it's a large part of the film that Harry has to work to understand Japanese values and culture and needs Ken as a guide. And by the time the final battle rolls around, it's clearly Ken's fight and Harry is his support.
  • Mighty Whitey and Mellow Yellow: Kilmer was a Marine MP and he protected Eiko, a Japanese woman in need. She fell in love with him.
  • Mr. Exposition: Oliver Wheat tells the backstories of Harry Kilmer, Ken and Eiko Tanaka.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Kilmer at The Reveal, and Ken when he kills his nephew in retribution for Hanako's murder in the final battle.
  • An Offer You Can't Refuse: Tanner's daughter is kidnapped by the yakuza as leverage for a deal.
  • Only I Can Kill Him: Ken has to kill Tono according to the Yakuza code, while Harry demands the right to take care of Tanner himself.
  • Pillars of Moral Character: Giri is explicitly mentioned, though the others are important too.
  • Public Bathhouse Scene: Kilmer goes to a public bathhouse and a mook of Tono tries to kill him.
  • Redemption Equals Death: Just after his Heel–Face Turn, Dusty is stabbed to death by the yakuza.
  • Retired Badass: Kilmer is a retired detective and Ken is a retired yakuza. They both show that they are still exceptional fighters.
  • Retired Outlaw: Ken Tanaka is not a yakuza any more. He is just a kendo teacher.
  • The Reveal: Kilmer gets some new perspective on the film's backstory. Eiko is not actually Ken's sister, but his wife.
  • Roaring Rampage of Revenge: Harry Kilmer first kills George Tanner and several of his mooks. Then he joins Ken Tanaka to kill Tono and many, many mooks.
  • Sacrificial Lion: Hanako is killed by Tono's henchmen.
  • She Is All Grown Up: Hanako was a little girl the last time Kilmer saw her. Now she is an attractive young woman.
  • Star-Crossed Lovers: Eiko and Kilmer. They fell in love during the occupation, but when Eiko's brother Ken came back, she had to stop this relationship with an ennemy soldier, because Ken could not stand it. Actually, Ken was not her brother, but her husband, so there is a more obvious reason why she had to stop this relationship. Many years later, they are still in love, and Kilmer proposes again to marry Eiko, but she rejects his offer.
  • The Stoic: Ken is called as The Man Who Never Smiles.
  • Tattooed Crook: All the yakuza.
  • There Was a Door: Easy to do when the walls are made of paper.
  • Yakuza
  • Yubitsume: Ken in atonement for killing his nephew, after he'd promised his brother not to harm him. In a surprise twist Kilmer, on the verge of leaving Japan at the end of the movie, returns to Ken's place and cuts off his own finger, apologising for the pain he's caused Ken and asking that he forgive Eiko.
  • Wall of Weapons: In Oliver Wheat's house.
  • The Watson: Dusty, who does not know Japanese culture and the other characters' backstory. He asks Oliver many questions.

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