By: Lee Richard
With accusations of cultural appropriation and promotion of ‘yellowface’ behaviour, controversy ensued February after the Winnipeg Art Gallery decided to use ‘Big in Japan’ as the theme of their annual Art & Soul fundraiser. While the WAG stated that the event was meant as a celebration rather than appropriation, critics insisted that the proposed theme would only serve to reinforce an Orientalist view of Japanese culture, which is a view based on stereotypes. The recent debate presents an opportunity to revisit one of the original, modern, in-depth depictions of Japanese culture in Western media, Sydney Pollack’s 1974 film The Yakuza.
The film celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. It stands as one the first major Hollywood productions to make extensive use of Japanese locations and to feature a Japanese actor in a starring role. Based on an original story by Leonard Schrader and co-produced by Warner Brothers and Toei Films, the film stars Robert Mitchum as Harry Kilmer, a WWII veteran once stationed in Japan who is compelled to go back in order to rescue his friend’s kidnapped daughter from the titular members of the Japanese underworld. Once he arrives intrigues arise and he is forced into a tenuous partnership with his ex-flame’s Yakuza brother Tanaka Ken, played by iconic Japanese actor Takakura Ken. Like Harry, Ken is a WWII veteran, and it is apparent that he is estranged from his family for reasons that are not immediately clear. The opaqueness of Ken’s family dynamics is one of many uncertainties that Harry must surmount in order to get closure, not only to his mission, but also to his relationship with country and culture.
The film can be interpreted as ground breaking in that it’s one of the first Western films to attempt to portray Asian culture and characters beyond broad stereotypes. Also, compared with later depictions of Japan in Western films during the ‘80s and ‘90s, the film lacks the ambivalence and cynicism endemic of Western presentations of Japan during the Reagan era, a lingering side-effect of America’s economic and social decline in the shadow of Japan’s rise.
As a means to try and determine how accurate the film is in its portrayal of Japanese culture and to gauge reactions to the depictions of Japanese culture in the film, I arranged for a viewing by an audience that included both Western and Japanese participants. In the wake of the screening responses to the film were varied but not completely divided. One of the Western commentators stated that the emphasis on revenge in the plot and the abundance of violence could lead one to believe that it is inherent within Japanese culture. However, they then added that this depiction was probably specific to Yakuza culture rather than Japanese culture as a whole. This view was seconded by another of the Western commentators, a teacher of Japanese Film at a local university, who stated that the depictions of violence in the film where no better or worse than other Japanese produced Yakuza films of the same vintage. In this sense the film establishes itself within the genre, which was probably the aim of the producers in the first place. The casting of Takakura Ken would lend credence to this theory. Famous in Japan for his portrayals of stoic sword-wielding protagonists driven to violence after suffering multiple injustices and slights to honour, Takakura is the archetypal actor for the roles in ninkyou eiga, or Yakuza chivalry films.
The film’s reliance on genre conventions was a sticking point for the Japanese commentators, though. They felt uncomfortable trying to evaluate the film’s depiction of Japanese culture when so much of it was in the context of Yakuza culture. This perspective was compounded by the fact that the majority of Japanese participants hadn’t seen a Yakuza film before. In terms of the depiction of violence, one of the Japanese commentators was also dubious of the film’s depiction of the rampant use of swords. They stated that this was impossible as private sword ownership had been outlawed in Japan for at least 100 years. Another Japanese commentator also pointed out that some of the greetings used between Yakuza in the film had realistically not been in use for the same amount of time. As well, another of the Japanese commentators stated that they felt that the prominent and repeated depiction of the ritual of yubisume, or atonement by trimming of the pinky finger, was exaggerated and sensationalized. What the Japanese commentators did appreciate was the fact that the film featured Japanese actors in the Japanese roles. They referenced films such as Memoirs of a Geisha and stated their frustration that Hollywood tended to use Asian cultures and actors interchangeably.
Talk then turned to other recent Western movies that depicted Japanese culture, specifically The Last Samurai and Lost in Translation. The Japanese participants stated that the later film came across as mocking Japanese culture, while the former elicited a divided response among the group as it’s depictions of Japanese culture resonated with some, while others stated that it made them uncomfortable.
Another aspect of The Yakuza that one of the Japanese viewers felt was unrealistic was the depiction of the treatment of Ken Takakura’s character by his family. In the film, Ken’s character did not return to Japan until five years after the end of the war and as a result his family assumed he was dead. Whether because of this or for other reasons his existence was not openly discussed by the family. The Japanese commentator felt that this was strange as they related that to have one’s family member die in service of the country was considered a point of pride and thus would not be something concealed. As the film’s primary characters are veterans, the war cannot help but cast a shadow over the narrative. However, where this film does distinguish itself, compared to other Hollywood films produced around the same time such as Tora, Tora, Tora and Hell in the Pacific, is that Japan is depicted in a context separate from the collective memory of the war.
For the most part the film depicts Japan in post-war emergence as an urbanized nation in the trawls of rapid economic development. This was noted by one of the Western viewers who stated that the film depicted a “nation in flux.” Perhaps the film’s attempt to articulate this sense of transition can explain its depiction of outdated rituals and swordplay. However the by-product of this is a narrative that semi-asserts that underneath the façade of nightclubs and skyscrapers there exists a society still bound to tradition and subject to a type of decorum impenetrable to those on the outside. It is in these depictions that one can perhaps detect an Orientalist gaze as articulated by Edward Said. That is, the Orient exists as a place that is immune to the turn to rationalism which the West embraced at the turn of the last century and as a result is incapable of “real” modernization.
Beyond this indulgence in sentimentality, the film tends not regress to stereotypes. One of the Western commentators who had spent an extended period of time living in Japan stated that depictions of Japan’s urban landscape, used as an alienating backdrop in a number of Hollywood films, were instead used here in a manner that served the story rather than just drawing attention to its own “foreignness.” They specifically referred to a scene which takes place inside a pachinko parlour. They stated that the environment and interactions within it seem completely natural. Compare this to the urban scenes in a film like Lost in Translation and the differences in Pollack’s approach are apparent.
Perhaps the reason why this film is capable of nuance in its approximation of a Yakuza movie is that it was written by someone who had not only studied the genre but also had lived in Japan. In past interviews screenwriter Leonard Schrader has stated that the idea of the film came not only from extensive viewing of Yakuza films, but also from conversations he had with Yakuza while frequenting dive bars and lounges in Japan during his time there in the ‘60s and ‘70s working as a university instructor. Following this film he went on write the Screenplay for the Academy Award Winning Kiss of the Spider Woman and the Japanese Academy award winning The Man Who Stole the Sun.
Overall the main point where commentators’ view of the film aligned was that the performances were the main strength of the film. However depending on cultural background the appeal of the performances could be attributed to different factors. While Ken Takakura’s extensive use of English in the film was not commented on by the Western viewers, the Japanese viewers repeatedly remarked how impressed they were with Ken’s fluency, to the point where they stated that it distracted from all other elements in the film.
These reactions show that the film has the potential to be interpreted differently depending on the audience. Gauging from reaction it seems that just as Robert Mitchum’s character serves as proxy for the Western perspective learning to navigate the intricacies of the world of the Yakuza, Ken Takakura’s character could serve as an idealized guide for Japanese audiences in navigating interaction with the West. While the film was written from a Western frame of reference it seems that the use of Japanese actors in the film allowed for the depictions and performances to resonate for a Japanese audience as well. So in terms of its depictions, to paraphrase a quote by Edward Said: The Yakuza exists first as the writer’s effort and second as an object to be read by its audience.
This being said I guess the next logical step in determining the appropriateness of the depictions of Japanese culture in this film would be to try and arrange a viewing for some actual Yakuza and see what they make of it all.