Reuniting Robert Mitchum and Richard Jordan the year after an all-time favorite of mine, The Friends of Eddie Coyle, Sydney Pollack’s The Yakuza is more than the name might conjure.
The film was written by Paul Schrader and Robert Towne – what a combo! You can feel the “man with troubled past” to come from some of Schrader’s work, and the Japanese-set script looks ahead to his Mishima. For Towne this is the beginning of his great run: The Last Detail, Chinatown, The Yakuza, and Shampoo in a three year span.
I watched The Yakuza after working out a recut of a scene for my own film currently in post. This one – Crooked & Narrow – is the first time I’ve ever tried my hand at an action sequence and it’s made me respect those scenes even more than I already did.
It really strikes me that, everything else aside, if an action scene is understandable then it’s largely successful. Sure, adrenaline, cleverness, and coherence within the greater narrative are important, but a logical action scene is more than half the battle.
The Yakuza has some great action set pieces. Here’s a look – with maybe the most stills I’ve ever included in a post – at part of one of my favorites. But before that, it’s important to examine a quick early section of the film.
Harry Kilmer (Mitchum) returns to Japan to do a dangerous favor for a friend: he must ask his old Yakuza acquaintance Tanaka Ken (Ken Takakura) for help in dealing with that Japanese mob. Here, Kilmer and his bodyguard Dusty (Jordan), enter their Kilmer’s friend’s Wheat (Herb Edelman) house in Tokyo for the first time.
Pollack frames a wide shot in the kitchen, and then shows Kilmer walked off frame right:
His action continues as the camera pans with him, revealing a staircase in front and then to the left, and a living room area with chairs, couches, and weapons:
A cut back to the kitchen to further establish (though it’s already been established) the relation between the two spaces via eyeline-
-then back to the living room, now occupying the full frame:
The scene ends as Kilmer takes his jacket, walking away from Dusty. Kilmer walks past the stairs and beyond them, indicating that the exit is that direction.
This is important stuff. The later action scene will be incredibly quickly cut with lots of coverage. Without establishing a sense of geography prior it will be hard to follow and make little sense.
So, on to the later scene. Dusty is alone with Eiko (Keiko Kishi) – Kilmer’s love – and Hanako (Christina Kokubo), daughter. He and Hanako start in the living room. Pollack gives us some important information in this really nicely framed first shot:
There’s Eiko in the background, frame left (not only important to where she is, but also as a reminder of the space); a light overhead, and the stairs in the background, all of which will come into play.
He cuts to a close-up of Hanako, and then to her hands as she serves tea. Following that is close-up shot-reverse between she and Dusty:
They’re attracted to each other. He’s sitting comfortably; read: he’s distracted and not alert.
A cut to Eiko. That background is meaningful. Perhaps best though is the slow tone that Pollack has established. Separate close-ups keep everyone doing their own thing and in their own world, though the eyeline and subsequent 2-shot between Hanako and Dusty connects them:
That 2-shot above is almost Eiko’s POV. It also shows – as does the first shot – the distance between she and the two younger people. This is important because…
The next shots are intruders crashing in behind Eiko:
A quick cut to a dual reaction shot:
Another quick cut, this time to a new angle. Wheat, upstairs, also reacting. We know from the low angle, and from the previous layout of the space that, since he’s not anywhere else we’ve been shown, that he must be upstairs. Shooting through the railing also helps to situate us:
So far a lot of effort has been taken to establish location, distance, and comfort. That’s all important for logic, but also because all are about to change.
A cut to Eiko and her captor, followed by a return to the 2-shot as Dusty pulls his gun, using the couch as cover:
The attacker pulls a knife and we get a close-up on Dusty. Decision time. It’s a nicely timed close-up:
Shot-reverse establishes more people and Dusty’s thought process:
Similarly to how we got that first close-up of Eiko, calm and in her own world, at the beginning of the sequence, we now get a shot of Hanako, her first single from this angle. Both serve to interrupt the rhythm of a shot-reverse, throwing a third party into the mix, and foreshadowing the danger/harm that will come to that person:
A release of tension, momentarily. Pollack cuts wider to both main parties. Dusty’s realized he’s defeated:
Let’s not forget about Wheat. He stands and looks. It’s a reminder of someone else in the house, but also, as he’s only been lensed twice, stresses his helplessness:
A lower angle frame – likely a tilt up from the previous shot on Dusty – as he tosses his gun away:
Now we go even wider. Why? The bad guys have control. Tension – at least in the “who’s going to shoot whom” sense – has been relieved. Also, we’re about to get a reminder of the space. Also again, the shot below really emphasizes Eiko’s isolation with her attackers:
Closer on Wheat and then back to the bad guys:
They throw Eiko frame right – which we know from previous set-ups, to be the direction of the living room – and she joins Hanako. Recognize that fireplace? It’s intentionally framed here to recall the earlier 2-shot of Dusty and Hanako, now used to situate Eiko and Hanako.
A cut to Dusty uses the lamp to indicate he hasn’t moved. We know how close he is to Eiko and Hanako now:
One of the villains moves past the stairs. We know that’s the entrance from the earlier scene’s information:
Shot-reverse. That lamp is really occupying a lot of the frame. It’s more or less balanced in the reverse by the red globe (which, from a production design standpoint, is itself echoed in the red lamps on the level above)
Now we cut around the established space and coverage. Eiko and Hanako:
Dusty (whose eyeline is important):
Intruder (who mimics Dusty’s eyeline):
Now back to Dusty who again looks up and away, drawing his enemy’s eyeline as well:
A shot to what they’re looking at:
Before we get into the action sequence, I should note that the above shots – since Dusty relinquishes his gun – have slowed in duration considerably. But that changes as Dusty finally justifies the presence of this gigantic hanging light. He pushes it forward:
A wide overhead – on-screen for about 1/3 of a second – shows the light swinging right to left. It also re-establishes everyone’s position:
The light continues with it’s proper screen-direction (left to right), throwing illumination chaos into the film:
A gunshot – we know where that chessboard is from previous setups (right in the midst of the living room, so some of our protagonists are in danger):
The light swings back, serving to not only continue its logical path, but also to temporarily white out the frame and give us a little needed disorientation (which will, of course, last only for a second):
A slight overhead as an attacker goes down. Where are we? Well he moves right to left. That, plus the stairs and chairs in the background tell me that he’s in the kitchen and has fallen backwards from the living room:
A reverse to Dusty, now also on the ground, gun in hand, reaffirms that:
Another attacker comes, moving left to right (opposite of how the guy above fell. So: he’s moving towards Dusty). But he falls backwards, which makes sense since, in the last shot of Dusty, he was aiming in this same direction:
The lamp still moves, and now our original guy (recognize that red lamp) comes back at Dusty (we’re in basic screen direction between mostly two parties now):
Dusty fires to the left. A blade knocks the gun in a tighter insert:
The left to right force of the gun spins Dusty’s arm to face frame right. He loses his gun:
A wider overhead giving us some idea of where exactly the attacker is (though as indicated, we should already know this from all the work the filmmaker has done to this point):
Back to a medium on Dusty. He kicks right to left, sending his attacker moving in that direction, backwards, and onto a familiar-looking couch:
New coverage. Really low with Dusty in the foreground. The low angle not only brings in another attacker, but also serves its traditional purpose: it makes that attacker loom dangerously. This is appropriate:
Back out to coverage we’ve seen as Dusty is stabbed:
Back to this shot, now chilling with a hell of a performance from Jordan:
That low angle, now tilted further up to show the stabber:
Quickly, we get coverage. Maybe we aren’t sure where we are at first-
-but that changes as Tanaka comes in, grabbing the bicycle from the foot of the steps (okay, that’s close to the entrance/exit of the house):
A new angle on Eiko and Hanako. Remember them? Tough job for the editor here to track everyone. Their reaction to Dusty’s death isn’t as important as to Tanaka’s entrance. He’s a major character:
Whose position is further established in this over-the-shoulder (OS):
It’s worth noting the relative lack of OS shots in here. In part, they aren’t necessary (they’re often used to establish proximity, position, etc). But also there’s a sort of release of tension with this one. We’ve moved wider again to bring these new guys in. We’ll move tighter soon.
Wide again to show Eiko and Hanako. And then wide to show Kilmer on the ground, crawling within the kitchen (see those chairs, hugging frame left) and moving towards the gun and the living room:
Back to Tanaka for a great sequence. Bicycle in hand in a full shot he moves frame right:
A well-timed wide shows a convergence of action (we should know where Kilmer is amidst all of this):
Medium on the bicycle hit:
Back to Dusty reaching for the gun:
Tanaka turns frame left and shoves with the bike, throwing someone right to left:
Another wide as he prepares to toss the bike forward and frame right:
That’s made even more relevant when the action is shown in this shot, already established as Kilmer’s location. So it reaffirms everyone (Kilmer close, Tanaka above and frame right, attackers mostly frame left, Eiko and Hanako beyond and frame left-center, Dusty beyond that):
Wide again, but from an angle with the kitchen at its back. The bike finishes its path. Again, positions (there’s Hanako frame right/back) are told:
Kilmer’s made his way into the foreground of the shot-
-the attacker is hidden behind the couch-
-and Wheat is useless up above. But he’s being tracked. He’s a potential victim, a witness, and a good cutaway for rhythmic purposes:
Kilmer fires frame right-
-and there’s a back and forth of gunfire. We’re now settling into two separate one-on-ones:
Here’s the other one. Tanaka and his guy. Notice how Tanaka and Kilmer are both frame left, moving frame right, while their attackers are mostly right to left. Tanaka tackles his guy-
Tanaka finishes the move (those guns on the wall behind help us orient):
A new angle on Kilmer, shooting through the railing on the stairs, with the kitchen behind him:
Tighter on the couch. Notice how we’ve lost Hanako and Eiko. That’s pretty intentional (though I won’t get to why in this analysis, it’s important to the emotional narrative):
Back to Kilmer who turns. He’s still facing frame right, but at a more extreme angle:
More frequent cuts between Kilmer and Tanaka. It’s a true cross-cut, though within the same time and space:
This is understandably Kilmer’s hand. How do we know? We know where he is. We’ve seen the fringes of that curtain before. We just saw him turn:
He fires. His guy goes down, left to right:
Couch man also reacts, firing and causing Kilmer to duck as rocks skid up:
Whew. That’s only about 2/3 of the scene, but I got tired. It’s interesting to see how Pollack does a variety of things to establish. He uses screen direction very carefully, pits a lot of one-on-ones that are then cross-cut with a concurrent one-on-one, and uses the set design to intentionally remind us of where we are.
There aren’t many over-the-shoulders or huge wides in this space. That helps keep it tense, but it’s never confusing. All of the moving parts stay carefully ordered also via the edit. Cuts to Wheat, Hanako and Eiko often serve to give us a breather from the gunfire and swordplay at work otherwise. A reaction like that can give us only one thing to really look at: eyeline. So it’s not only a temporal break, but we’re able to quickly trace the gaze and relate it to the shot just before and/or just after, thereby making a new connection.
Pollack changes “good guy” screen direction midway through this example, but most importantly, he keeps Kilmer’s and Tanaka’s screen directions the same. They’re a team and Dusty’s dead.
It’s a brilliant sequence in a film that’s really very good. Probably my favorite Pollack.