Welcome to Commentary Commentary, where we sit and listen to filmmakers talk about their work, then share the most interesting parts. In this edition, Rob Hunter heads back in time to the glorious ’70s and the under-appreciated classic thriller, The Yakuza.
Sydney Pollack’s career as a filmmaker sometimes took a backseat to his on-screen appearances — his turn in Eyes Wide Shut (1999) remains an all-timer — but his filmography remains impressive. He tackled all kinds of material resulting in a string of both hits and critically acclaimed movies including the likes of The Way We Were (1973), Three Days of the Condor (1975), Absence of Malice (1981), Tootsie (1982), and more. Of course, he also directed films that garnered far less attention.
His 1974 film The Yakuza is among the latter, but it deserves a re-evaluation as a solidly crafted, respectful, and dramatic thriller. Pollack recorded a commentary track for the film upon its DVD release, so we’ve finally given it a listen. Keep reading to see what I heard on the commentary track for…
The Yakuza (1974)
Commentator: Sydney Pollack (director, producer)
1. “I was drawn to this material right away,” he says, adding that he was most intrigued by the “culture clash” at its heart. He was attracted to the differing morals and traditions between East and West.
2. The opening scene shows a traditional yakuza greeting with two men extending their empty hands to show that they’re not holding a weapon.
3. Roughly ninety-five percent of the film was shot in Japan with the remainder being filmed in Malibu, CA.
4. “This title sequence was quite extravagant at the time,” and it was accomplished with reflections and ink in water activated by fans and propellers.
5. This was Pollack’s first film with composer Dave Grusin, and they went on to collaborate several more times.
6. The original screenplay was written by Paul Schrader and Leonard Schrader. “They wrote a script that had lovely, lovely ideas in it,” but Pollack found it to be too straightforward as a fight film. He brought in Robert Towne to soften it but still leave it as a genre film.
7. He loved Brian Keith and describes him as a sadly underrated actor for most of his life.
8. Robert Mitchum “was a pretty good drinker… but he was also an amazingly complicated man.”
9. The film always reminded him of Robert Frost’s poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” He sees it being about keeping promises and fulfilling honor.
10. His search for an actor to play Eiko led him to Japanese born Keiko Kishi who was living at the time in Paris with her filmmaker husband. She spoke English but was still authentically Japanese.
11. The studios in Japan at the time were “dirt floor” studios, and “I’m just remembering as I’m watching this how freezing cold they were.”
12. The conversation between Wheat (Herb Edelman) and Dusty (Richard Jordan) was “a risky thing to do at the time” as it’s talky and features a montage of Harry (Mitchum) walking the streets of Tokyo. The latter shots were “stolen” by hiding the cameras in large crates being wheeled around so no one would see them. “It’s a long sequence with an awful lot of talk in it, and the hope here was that the visuals in a way would carry it and allow you to get all of this background without doing flashbacks.”
13. Pollack spoke no Japanese, and his cinematographer, Okazaki Kozo, spoke no English. “We communicated in a very strange but effective way.” They each had a gray-scale card going from white to black in ten stages, and they used that to communicate light density in various areas of a shot. “He did a lovely job.”
14. He has endless praise for production designer Stephen Grimes (who also worked as second unit director on the film). Grimes walked “for hours” throughout the city in search of the perfect locales, and any he couldn’t find he would have built.
15. Ken Takakura was “a Japanese McQueen” to Pollack who goes on to describe the actor as wonderful, talented, traditional, and extraordinary.
16. While the West and Christianity carry a belief that confession can absolve you of sin, “the Eastern cultures find that completely absurd.” Those of us with common sense agree with the East, as “if it’s that easy to atone for something, then the atonement doesn’t mean anything.”
17. He was concerned that American audiences “don’t really like to read subtitles,” and Warner Bros. was hoping he could avoid using them all together.
18. As producer, Pollack tried to sub-contract as much of the labor as possible — rather than hire individual crew members, he paid a local studio to provide most of them along with studio space, advisors, extras, and more. “It was a long haul to work it out.”
19. “He was capable of a lot,” says Pollack about Mitchum, “but you had to push him.” He thinks the actor, who often referred to himself as “an actress,” didn’t consider himself to be all the good without being ridden hard. “He was a real mule. He would give you what you wanted, but you had to beat him.”
20. “I think I was a little subversive, to be honest,” he says regarding his approach to what WB saw as “strictly a martial arts picture.” The studio expected more gunfights, explosions, and action, but while he kept some of that he was far more interested in the characters, cultures, and East meets West storyline.
21. The two yakuza seen at 50:44 in their binding undergarments show what all yakuza wear beneath their clothes “to keep their intestines intact when a knife cuts in.”
22. Pollack felt “more freedom to go slow” with his films in the ’70s then he feels today — with today being 2006 or so when he recorded this commentary. “The ’70s was kind of a free for all time when anybody could try anything. I think it’s one of the reasons we had so many good and interesting films in the ’70s. I think it was a terrific decade for film.”
23. He didn’t preview any of his films via test screenings and focus groups until 2005’s The Interpreter. It was his final film.
24. People were actually singing “My Darling Clementine” in the club, so he added the brief scene as it cracked him up.
25. “I keep wanting to stop talking and watch it because I haven’t seen in it so long.” And he does.
26. Pollack seems most fascinated with the differing sense of obligation felt by people in the East and West. It’s the concept of “giri,” meaning duty and obligation that isn’t learned necessarily but is instead simply felt.
27. US critics at the time found the film “exotic and strange” while European audiences embraced it wholeheartedly.
28. He’s tried hiring storyboard artists in the past, but he never found it to be much of an aid in his process. Instead, he finds himself on the set and begins to work out his shots one step at a time.
29. Pollack filmed everything in widescreen until 1985, and that includes interior scenes. Studios often questioned his judgment, but “it’s such a great format for transmitting information. I can give you more story and content in widescreen than any other way.” He eventually stopped when he realized that pan and scan edits on home video were killing his movie.
30. “Ken is a relic leftover from another age, another country,” says a character in the film about Tanaka (Takakura), and Pollack sees Mitchum at this point of his career in a similar light. “There’s something quite noble to me about both of these men and what they represented.”
31. He recalls the difficulty staging the end action sequence with Harry and Tanaka fighting a group of yakuza, and he adds that the prep work began a couple of years prior, on Jeremiah Johnson (1972), where he found himself choreographing action sequences in balletic ways.
32. Pollack sees his past work with Burt Lancaster (Castle Keep, 1969; The Swimmer, 1968; The Scalphunters, 1968) as a rehearsal of sorts for working with Mitchum. He says they were clearly different yet similar in many ways.
33. The end scene with Harry making his finger sacrifice as an apology to Tanaka was “most troublesome for audiences,” and that saddens Pollack. He finds the scene moving and was disappointed that US audiences had such issues with it. Pollack also had Mitchum redo the scene ten times “because he didn’t have enough pain.”
34. The shot of Harry and Tanaka walking as they say goodbye was filmed with a lens that Pollack had Panavision make special for him. It was a 360mm lightweight short lens, which they had never made in anamorphic.
35. “There’s something emotionally very solid about the reasoning in saying it’s too easy to say I’m sorry. It costs you nothing. Based on the idea, you can hurt someone very badly physically, emotionally, and say I’m sorry and you’re absolved. And then you even say look, I said I’m sorry, what do you want me to do, is a phrase you hear all the time. Well, the Japanese would say I want you to hurt yourself. I want you to feel what I felt. So I’m fascinated by these rituals.”
Best in Context-Free Commentary
“Depending on the part of society that you belong to, they’re either heroes… or they’re gangsters.”
“This was a whole exotic new world for me to learn about.”
“Mitchum, of course, was like working with the history of cinema.”
“That was still the days where everybody smoked in movies.”
“You can cut your hand off with this next move.”
“Mitchum was an actor who was always a touch embarrassed by being an actor.”
“This is a scene that’s way too long for most movies.”
“I did a very bad thing.”
The Yakuza remains a fantastic film, and Pollack’s commentary shows that he agrees. The track was recorded just two years before his death in 2008, but his memories are clear. He offers up both anecdotes and insight into its production with a clear affection for both the characters and the main theme of honor that runs throughout.
Read more Commentary Commentary from the archives.