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When an old army buddy George Tanner’s (Brian Keith) daughter is kidnapped by powerful yakuza boss Tono (Eiji Okada), Harry Kilmer (Robert Mitchum) is called upon for help.
Harry is baffled as to what kind of aid he can provide in this case. Tanner asks Harry to speak with Tanaka Ken (Ken Takakura) a big shot yakuza during the U.S. occupation of Japan and also the brother of Harry’s great love Tanaka Eiko (Keiko Kishi). Harry has seen neither in 20 years.
Tanner is well aware that Tanaka Ken must help Harry if he asks him as he is in his debt.After the war, Eiko, who had lost her entire family save for her infant daughter, was saved by Harry Kilmer who was stationed in Tokyo as military police. They both fell in love but she refused to marry him without offering an explanation.
When her brother Tanaka Ken, seemingly returns from the dead, a couple of years later he thanks Harry for saving Eiko and her daughter but bitterly resents being in the eternal debt of his enemy and can’t forgive Eiko for placing him in that debt.
Harry agrees to help Tanner and goes to Japan where he stays with another army buddy who’s now a university professor in Tokyo. When Harry meets with Eiko she explains that Tanaka now lives in Kyoto where he owns a kendo school. When Harry and Tanaka Ken meet, Harry explains the situation regarding Tanner’s daughter. Ken concedes that while Tono and his clan are not what he would call honorable, he would not kidnap an American student. Ken agrees to help but warns Kilmer that he no longer has much influence as he left the yakuza several years ago.
Back in Tokyo, Harry, Ken and Dusty (Richard Jordan) go to the monastery where Tanner’s daughter is being held and guarded by several of Tono’s men. Things quickly spiral out of control and sword fights and gunfire ensue killing several of Tono’s men. Unfortunately, Ken has been identified by the escaped survivors and is now lethally compromised.
The rescued girl is brought back to her father who is now in Tokyo. Ken tells the Americans not to worry. He’ll be fine. Tono won’t dare strike against him. Tanner advises Kilmer and Dusty to catch the next plane out of Japan.
As they’re getting ready to leave for the airport the following day, Eiko stops by to speak with Harry. She explains that Ken stopped by last night and waited until her daughter came back from a date. This is unlike Ken as he almost never speaks to his sister. She tells Harry that while Ken didn’t say anything to her she knows his life is in grave danger. She asks Harry to speak with Ken’s brother (brother?), Goro (James Shigeta) who’s a powerful yakuza advisor to all the clans.
When Kilmer speaks to the brother, who is also a legitimate businessman, Goro explains that Tono is hoping he will interfere so that he can compromise Goro’s standing and position among the yakuza. Upon hearing Goro offer the three options that Ken has in dealing with Tono, Harry decides to help Ken with the third option; killing Tono first.But what neither Kilmer nor Ken yet know is that there is also a price on Kilmer’s head.
As long guarded secrets and new double crosses come to light, Kilmer and Ken will have to join forces in order to survive Tono and an unknown enemy.
Directed by Sydney Pollak with a script by Paul Schrader and Robert Towne, The Yakuza is a neo noir gangster thriller with solid performances by Robert Mitchum and Ken Takakura and dazzling swordplay. This is an immensely enjoyable film that touches on themes of duty and honor in a time when this is becoming more and more rare.
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