THE YAKUZA / john cribbs

"Without moving, Ken gazed intently at the plain-wood scabbards and meditated briefly on the history of their hidden blades, absorbing their history into himself, ridding his mind of everything else, smelting his heart like a chunk of molten iron, tempering his soul like a steel billet, purifying his Spirit until it was worthy of the pure steel in the purified blades."
- The Yakuza by Leonard Schrader

"Novel, fine, first we write the screenplay."
- Paul Schrader to Leonard Schrader
re: The Yakuza, Easy Riders Raging Bulls.

leonard schrader, 1975

Thanks to Peter Biskind, the story of future reviewer Paul Schrader and lobby card-enthusiast Leonard Schrader writing the spec script for The Yakuza has become one of the most romantic tales in the annals of screenwriting. Two men, brothers, both seemingly at the end of his tether. Paul was jobless, homeless, sleeping on friends' couches and banging out the first draft of Taxi Driver in his car. Leonard had just moved back to Grand Rapids from Kyoto where he'd spent four years teaching English literature at Doshisha University while sitting out the draft, and was slowly going crazy at his parents' house.

Based on a letter Leonard had sent to Paul from Japan wherein he described the gangster movies he'd been seeing and his desire to write an American yakuza film, they met in L.A. at the end of 1972 and hashed out the script in an unfurnished one-room apartment in Venice between Thanksgiving and New Year's. Living off little food, writing 20 hours a day in a taxing four-week session interrupted only by an impromptu trip to Vegas that ended with the brothers going bust and hitchhiking back to L.A., the first time-screenwriters came up with a script that sold for a then-unprecedented $325,000.

It's the ink-stained dream of many a budding scribe hoping to become the next Shane Black or John Mattson (you know, the writer of Milk Money?), complete with Babylonian second act betrayal. In Biskind's telling, power-hungry Paul, the more business-savvy of the duo, plays Cain to Leonard's Abel, drastically reducing his brother's take of the payday and downgrading him to a "story" credit. According to Biskind, this polite backstabbing more or less defined the Schraders' relationship from that point on: Leonard the Underappreciated Genius implies in Biskind's book that he wrote all of Blue Collar (Paul's directorial debut, for which they shared screenwriting credit) while Paul the Flawed Legend outright confesses that he "stole" the Mishima biopic from Leonard, who had met the author while living in Japan and spent years developing a film based on his life.

As far as The Yakuza, director Sydney Pollack played his own part in obscuring the authorship issue by hiring a red-hot Robert Towne to rewrite the script. According to Pollack's dvd commentary: "[The Schraders] wrote a script which had lovely, lovely ideas but it was too much a straight-ahead martial arts picture for me, and so I did bring Robert Towne in and we all worked on it together, in a way. We did another draft which, depending on how you look at it, moved it a litle bit out of the genre film that it was. It remained a genre film, but it got a little more preoccupied with the ideas in the movie and less preoccupied with the violence."

All that considered, it's tempting to look at the film's novelization as an compendium of Leonard's ideas for the movie, a "pure" version of what he had intended The Yakuza to be. But evidence of scenes from the book not found in the movie yet present in drafts credited to Towne suggests that it was based on something closer to a shooting script than an early version by the Schrader brothers. According to Towne, he was instructed to "heighten the international romantic element" of the story, a factor hardly lacking in the novelization - Schrader even includes a nice little scene between American Harry Kilmer and former flame Eko in the park that wouldn't be out of place in Pollack's The Way We Were.

As for the violence Pollack was so worried about? Naturally, the novelization offers more sanguinary imagery than the film, which Roger Ebert claimed was "for audiences that have grown accustomed over the last few years to buckets of blood, disembowelments and severed hands flying through the air" in his unenthusiastic review. (25 years later Ebert's giving four stars to the "kind of brilliant" Kill Bill movies, which contain more blood, guts and severed limbs than 100 Yakuza's.) But I doubt the script itself was littered with descriptions of blood-splattered byobu screens and innards spilled across tatami mats. Even a clean, self-inflicted pinky cleaving requires a more colorful depiction in novelized form: the bone cracking, radial artery spray soaking into the cotton cloth, numbing pain that grips the mind of the self-mutilator. Leonard even goes for a little gross-out by detailing Harry's hapless attempt to severe the finger and the bottom strand of skin that remains after the first attempt "like a thin piece of cheese," but I doubt enjoyably vivid passages like that represent what interested Leonard about the story in the first place. I think he just wants to illustrate how awkward it would be for someone who's never amputated anyone's finger to slice off their own.*

On the other hand, it's been reported that the finished film is extremely faithful to Towne's final rewrite. Since Leonard's book deviates from the film in small but significant ways, these could still be viewed as specific Schraderisms. The most notable difference between the book and the movie is the approach to Japan. It's nothing that drastically alters the story of kidnapping, corporate and criminal intrigue, obligation and vengeance, and I'd say that both approaches are absolutely correct given the two different mediums. Pollack clearly saw Yakuza as a gateway film to the seedy underbelly of a foreign subculture, into which American audiences would need to be led as if it were an alien world. Even though Pollack hired local DP Kôzô Okazaki, who shot almost 100 movies including Hideo Gosha's Goyokin and The Wolves, his Japan is exotic: filmed in 2.35:1 Panavision, his standard 70's widescreen aspect ratio, so that narrow alleyways are like spaceship corridors and the interiors of bathhouses and gambling parlors are as foreign as the surface of an unexplored planet.

For a mid-70's American public largely unexposed to Japanese films in general, and the term "yakuza" in particular, this technique makes complete sense. But it wasn't necessarily what Schrader(s) had in mind - Leonard had immersed himself in Japanese culture during his time there, while Paul had become an expert in Japanese gangster films (he set up a marathon of yakuza flicks for himself at the Toei Studios-run Linda Lea theater in Los Angeles and wrote a primer to yakuza movies for Film Comment's Jan/Feb 1974 issue). Dusty, the young American audience surrogate who finds eastern customs and yakuza rituals so fascinating, is significantly enrapt by a samurai movie they watch on the plane to Japan in a scene from the book that doesn't appear in the film. So whereas Pollack uses Robert Mitchum's Harry Kilmer as a tour guide into this bizarre warrior-criminal sect, the novelization suggests the Schrader script merely intended to plunk Kilmer into the well-trodden cinematic territory of Seijun Suzuki, Tai Katô, Kosaku Yamashita and such outstanding one-offs as Kurosawa's Drunken Angel, Masahiro Shinoda's Pale Flower and Takashi Nomura's A Colt is My Passport. No gateway to a strange new world was required for this concept, the Schraders simply wanted to make their own yakuza movie.

The Yakuza came right around the time when Ninkyo-eiga films, which portrayed yakuza members as stoic, honorable anti-heroes torn between giri (duty) and ninjo (humanity), was falling out of fashion in favor of the Jitsuroku-eiga genre. Gangster characters in Jitsuroku-eiga films, most notably the ones in Kinji Fukasaku's epic Battles without Honor and Humanity, were more realistically portrayed as corrupt criminals with no ethical integrity. The latter was more in line with the 70's American cinema tendency towards anti-heroes and outcasts, although all evidence points to Pollack preferring the more romantic notion of the Ninkyo genre (incidentally, that's probably the reason he's never listed alongside the groundbreaking New Hollywood filmmakers). The result is Yakuza melding into a unique clash of these two kind of films with its protagonist, retired gangster Tanaka Ken (played by Ken Takakura from 1965's Brutal Tales of Chivalry and The Walls of Abashiri Prison), cast as the noble Ninkyo hero against a clan of Jitsuroku-inspired crooks who don't follow the yakuza's Bushido-derived code.

The Schraders, being up-to-speed on their yakuza movies, provided tropes of the Jitsuroku genre such as yubitsume, the ritual of cutting off one's pinky finger to attone for an insult that played a big part in several yakuza movies like Fukasaku's Street Mobster from 1972. Towne was able to follow suit. At an AFI seminar, the screenwriter commented on the formula of Japanese gangster films and its characters who are "stricken with this terrible sense of duty and that in the end they end up killing 25,000 people or themselves or both or mutilating themselves", obviously referring to the old-fashioned Ninkyo movies. The much more romantic notions of honor and giri, especially if it justified killing 25,000 people, must have been what appealed to Pollack.

Ken's giri, "the burden hardest to bear," his obligation to Kilmer that plays a huge role in the plot of the movie (it's even the basis for the tagline, "A man never forgets. A man pays his debts."), is remarkably downplayed in Leonard's book. In Pollack's film, the reason Kilmer knows Ken will help him rescue war buddy Tanner's kidnapped daughter from the clutches of the yakuza is that Ken is indebted to him for saving his "sister" Eko at the end of the war. In the book, Ken states he'll help Kilmer because of the kindness he's shown to Eko and her daughter Hanako - not because he's bound by any specific obligation; it's never even implied that Kilmer saved Eko's life, only that he helped get her out of a life of prostitution.

Late in the story, when Ken's brother Goro enlists Harry to approach Ken about wiping out their common enemy Tono, Harry seems genuinely surprised at the idea that Ken feels obligated to him in any way, unlike in the film where the giri is brought up in every other scene to make sure the audience understands the stringent warrior etiquette of the yakuza to which Ken is harnessed. Because of this, what's lost in the novelization is the razor-thin contempt Ken feels for Kilmer that's bottled up deep inside his sense of duty (he owes the American for saving his family) and rationale (Harry didn't know Eko was actually his wife, so can't be accused of stealing Ken's family from him).

Then again, this is the kind of thing that can only be conveyed through Ken Takakura's deftly delicate performance, Ken's derision towards Harry just barely perceptible enough to crack the border of subtlety. It also makes sense that Pollack would want to focus on the samurai mystique of Tanaka Ken to emphasize his otherworldliness, while Leonard seems to see him as just another badass character from this kind of film. Instead of giving Ken some Bruce Lee-style philisophical speech to his kendo class (a bit of dialogue about expecting nothing that reeks of Towne-ish script doctoring), the book spends four fascinating pages on the history of the martial art and its application to modern life, even pointing out that talking wouldn't be kosher in a kendo class: "Knowing kendo was mastered by doing and not by listening, [Ken] said little and drilled his class strictly for the whole hour."

Now of course, Leonard has plenty of room to devote to codes, rituals, the origin of kendo and katanas and other Japanese concepts instead of making his characters sound like historians and tour guides. Predictably, his time in Japan brings a lot to the book. Not so much his alleged exposure to the Yamaguchi-gumi, the dominant yakuza organization in the Kansai area at the time Leonard was in Japan, which probably had less to do with the background of The Yakuza than the movies that inspired it. Moreso it's an observation of the country through the eyes of a foreigner that sets the tone of the novelization: how the Japanese love secrets and delight in discovering the secrets of their neighbors, that nothing is more offensive than exposure.

Schrader writes about how the Japanese identity is suggestive rather than explicit, how sliding partitions shut out outsiders yet also "encourage peeping," that Tokyo is the "greatest hiding place in the world." Schrader sees it as a city with its own personality rather than a strange culture, positing that a society wherein such a clandestine faction as the yakuza could exist must be vigorously enigmatic and uninviting to visitors from the west. Another interesting architectural tidbit he mentions is how the houses in Tokyo are achronologically numbered so that "house number 156 stands between number 45 and 708," indicating a Japanese adherence to history and tradition rather than accessiblity to outsiders who may very well find themselves lost in the "twisted chaos of crooked streets with no names."

Leonard's knowledge of and insight into Japanese culture makes me wonder what I'm supposed to think about Oliver Wheat, a side character who seems like he's supposed to be a surrogate for either Leonard Schrader or Sydney Pollack. I remember for years after seeing the movie for the first time, I was under the erroneous impression that Pollack had played the part himself, based on the fact that Oliver is an out-of-place, bespectacled fuddy duddy Jewish guy.** An old army buddy of Harry's who stayed in Japan after the war and spent 20 years building up an impressive katana collection, Oliver is an expatriate like Leonard who also teaches (in his case, Japanese-American history) and has become an expert in local culture. In the movie he's a complete wuss, constantly fretting (strange for a guy with an armory for a living room) and robbed of the pleasure of a game of chess because his doctor tells him he's too nervous to play anymore.

Although he's not fleshed out much more in the book (he seems like more of an old Burt Lancaster type, more weary than neurotic), Leonard doesn't have him wincing in a corner and begging them to stop once the yakuza invade and start shooting up his home. Pointedly, the first thing Schrader's Oliver does when Harry lands at the airport is insist they play a game of chess! Given that the portrait of Oliver as a milquetoast gaijin mincing about his little museum of a home in a cashmere sweater while stroking his cat and spouting off facts about the Orient is clearly not Schrader's, I have to kind of wonder if Pollack/Towne is making fun of Leonard with this character. Just always seemed weird to me to turn this war veteran into a jittery coward who wets himself when the "real Japan" comes blazing through his door when he's fine as a one-dimensional sidekick who churns out exposition. (Another, slightly more justified criticism of Ebert's is Wheat's long-winded bit of background on Harry and Eko, "a voiceover narration so complicated we almost lose our place."*** You'd think that this information would be re-worked into the narration of the novel but nope, strangely enough it's one long monologue just like in the movie.)

Despite holding back every scintillating piece of backstory for the intriguing Oliver Wheat, Leonard more than makes up for it by fleshing out his two main characters. In my last novelization review of A Fistful of Dollars, I mentioned not envying the writer who had to get into the head of the stoic Man With No Name; Schrader's task of keeping Tanaka Ken cool and mysterious while devoting chapters to Ken's physical and psychological hardships is no less daunting. To his credit, Leonard is able to maintain Ken as a relatable character without breaching his impenetrable fortitude or cheapening his unempathetic "readiness to die at any moment." As a particularly smart recurring tool that reads like the sparse descriptions in a story featuring Parker or Travis McGee, Leonard ends paragraphs with Ken sizing up situations by applying laws of "yin," "yang" and "yakuza code." He gives Ken a job outside the gig as a kendo master: he runs a successful dump truck company, and has a reputation as the only manager who'll hire ex-cons and former yakuza, a nice touch that provides the character even more independence and integrity. As in the movie he's given the cool nickname Warawanai Otoko, "the man who never smiles."

But since Schrader goes into some detail of Ken's time as a soldier (not going so far as to flashback to Ken's six years trapped inside Filipino mines after the war, the horror of which being self-evident), we also learn his wartime nickname was Iron Balls Tanaka. In the book Dusty (likened to a "mutant sunflower" at one point) is identified as a Vietnam vet, and the sense of loyalty (if not exactly friendship) between Kilmer, Tanner and Wheat is strengthened by some snippets into their experiences abroad during the American occupation. Better yet, there's an added scene set in a bar where an drunk old war buddy of Ken's approaches him. At first the buddy is reticent about engaging the two Americans who fought for the other side, but the scene ends with the four men and their waitress marching around to an old battle song playing on the jukebox. There's no question this scene was excised from the movie because it doesn't move the plot forward, but it would have been nice to see a scene where Ken lets his hair down for a brief moment and bond with Kilmer and Dusty before all hell breaks loose.

Kilmer - giri-gatai gaijin, the strange stranger - is much more of a crotchety old bastard in Leonard's book - that's right, even more than Robert Mitchum! Whereas Mitchum's Kilmer is first seen tending to the plants on his patio (some badass juxtaposition), the one in the book is introduced making himself a pair of ham sandwiches. Although he doesn't hesitate to drive out and see his old war pal, he flat out turns down Tanner's plea to help rescue his daughter at first. He's much gruffer with Dusty, and is described by Leonard as a P.I. who turned a blind eye to some shady business in exchange for enough hush-up money to keep him comfortable. He breaks everything down into rules, sub-rules, axioms and facts, creating a connection to Ken and his "yin" and "yang" categorizing of dire situations.

Whether the creation of Harry Kilmer owes more to Leonard or Paul, he'd be the first in a long line of lonesome, weary, essentially suicidal Paul Schrader male protagonists - a man fated to a life of violence, a life without a family, all elements Paul would return to with characters ranging from Major Charles Rane in Rolling Thunder to John LeTour in Light Sleeper. But this sensitive angle definitely developed somewhere between the script and screen, Harry's line to Ken about how he needs to join him in his final assault on the yakuza base because if he doesn't he'll have "nowhere to go" being absent from Leonard's book. Just to be speculative, it's possible that Paul's unique take on the hard-boiled hero of 70's action cinema stemmed from Robert Towne's rewrite. My favorite badass line from the movie - "He would be no farther away from them than the length of his own sword" - also doesn't appear in the book, so maybe Towne gets credit for that one too. But Leonard does give Ken a little piece of warrior rhetoric that he puts forward to Harry: "What beauty ever came from a gun?"

Leonard answers that question with the exquisitely-penned action of Chapter 10's thirty-page barrage of blazing guns and whistling steel that results in a pile of amputated body parts and the odd decapitated head. Not to detract from Pollack's elegantly staged direction of the same bloody climax, but what could be lost in the sheer craziness of Tanaka Ken slashing his way through an army of gangsters (54 yakuza blade are accounted for by Leonard before the final showdown begins; according to a news bulletin in the aftermath the police find 36 bodies, nine additional limbs, 19 abandoned firearms and 72 swords) is Ken's skilled effort in focusing on each adversary.

This section of the book succeeds in one of the things a novelization should theoretically do best: it enriches the experience of its cinematic counterpart. Ken's perception of the playing field, his stance, his subtle feints used to throw off enemy swordsmen all become sharper with the benefit of Leonard's prose. Even Kilmer's inelegant handling of the double-barreled shotgun seems choreographed to a precision given the book's detailed disarray. Going into the fight, Leonard contrasts the two men's different mindsets: Kilmer looks at the clan house and sees a battlefield, Ken sees his cemetery. Watching the scene play out in the film, it's clear how each of these mentalities determine the warriors' every movement - Kilmer charging forward hellbent on revenge, Ken leaning backwards inviting death to take him if it wants. This understanding reinforces the already-terrific observation from earlier in the book/film: "When an American cracks up, he opens up the window and shoots up a bunch of strangers. When a Japanese cracks up, he closes the window and kills himself." The line unquestionably belongs to Leonard Schrader.

Leonard, who'd further explore the American temperament for violence compared to the rest of the world in his 1982 mondo documentary The Killing of America, follows each act of destruction with a sense of horror that's as wrenching as his action scenes are intense. It starts with the death of Dusty and Tono, Ken and Eko's son (in the book they have a young son in addition to an adult daughter, it's the son who's killed by a stray bullet in the yakuza raid), and a paragraph where Leonard has Ken channel his paralyzing grief into a revitalizing energy that allows him continue down the sobering path of duty. As Ken and Kilmer escape their climatic massacre, focus shifts to an unnamed veteran yakuza, his right arm freshly hacked off, waiting for the duo in the parking lot, "ready to do his duty." Leonard doesn't have to say how that turns out for him, and the fact that he doesn't is sort of beautifully tragic. Earlier, when Kilmer comes after him in the book, Tanner is simpering and begging instead of indignantly cursing his old pal's name:

Kilmer pulled the trigger. ONE: The high-powered blast hammered Tanner's spine to the wall, jerking his arm spastically over his head. TWO: His mouth snapped open but the thundering roar obliterated the scream. THREE: The bleeding torso slid slowly down the wall, bouncing like a puppet each time a slug tore through the heart. FOUR: Kilmer silently counted each shot, pausing only to re-aim and lower the .45, following Tanner's heart slowly to the floor. FIVE: and aim SIX: and aim SEVEN.

The end of the novel deals with the very unpleasant subject of body disposal. Leonard explains how drastic space shortage in Japan had necessitated a law against burying the dead, and that even foreigners who had not taken legal counter-measures beforehand were subject to cremation. So Harry brings Dusty's body out to a rural crematorium, grimly contemplating how Ken and Eko had done the same with the body of Tono the day before. Like the scene with the war buddy in the bar, it undoubtedly wasn't considered an important enough scene to include in the movie, but I have a feeling it would have been one of the best if handled with the right amount of gravitas.

For a first book that contains the occasional clunker like "As masters of economic monomania, modern yakuza unabashedly dump the milk of human kindness down the sewer of human greed", the Yakuza novelization is an impressive effort from budding bibliophile Leonard . All chapters open with quotes from samurai warriors and Buddist monks. There are some dynamite visuals throughout the book: a neon sign turns the three men blood-red as they leave to rescue the daughter, at one point Harry looks out the window at the pale white moon, like "a film negative of the Japanese flag." And for a story that Towne claimed needed some extra romance, Schrader doesn't drop the ball in that department either, having Harry realize his and Eko's different views of the past would be like "the same scene when portrayed in a Japanese scroll and an American etching." The book comes to life whenever it deals with real human emotion; if there's one consistent flaw, it's that the narrative becomes restless whenever it's forced to deal with politics.

Fresh off Chinatown, Robert Towne really Chinatown'd up the conspiracy angle of the script which seems unfocused in the book. Leonard has Tono's clan attempting to take over Tanner's shipping company in Yokohama - instead of being an outright scumbag who screws his Japanese crime buddies over then lies to his friend and subsequently tries to kill him, Tanner's kind of forced into a corner. This serves as a plot mechanism to involve Goro, Ken's brother, played with a quiet tenderness in the film by James Shigeta (Sam Fuller's The Crimson Kimono, Takagi in Die Hard), who Schrader saw as a big-time, no-nonsense oyabun who actually hires Kilmer and Ken to wipe out Tono so Tono's business ventures (guns, heroin) don't rattle the cage of the yazuka community. Notably, Leonard really hones in on the estranged brothers subplot: Goro speaks family language to Ken, Ken speaks formal language to keep his distance (the rift in the movie is that Goro had to turn a blind eye to Ken after he left the yakuza; in the book, he had actively sought to kill him). Towne makes Tanner a Noah Cross-sized asshole and expert manipulator whose only misstep is not hiring more security. For Towne, it's about being unable to trust the people in power, even if it's your friend; for Leonard, betrayals are intimate.

There's no sequel to Peter Biskind's book, so who knows if Paul Schrader ever swallowed his pride, supplicated himself before Leonard and offered a pinky finger to apologize for his treatment of him before Leonard's death. Most narratives involving Leonard end with the brothers bitterly parting ways after Mishima; the best you can hope for after that are complaints about the miscasting of Vincent D'Onofrio in Naked Tango or sad stories from friends about Leonard becoming a recluse. The Hollywood bulldozer definitely had Leonard in its sights: even the back cover of The Yakuza lists "screenplay by Paul Schrader and Robert Towne" without even adding Leonard's meager story credit. Leonard went on to write novelizations of Blue Collar and Hardcore - he co-wrote Blue Collar with Paul and, as I mentioned, Biskind's book hints that he may have been the sole author. Whether or not Leonard was motivated to write the Yakuza novelization to create something that was his own, that he didn't have to share with Towne, Pollack or his baby brother, he absolutely came up with something special.

* It makes you wonder how a novelization of Rolling Thunder would handle the hand-in-the-garbage-disposal sequence. (Check back in a couple of weeks if you're curious!)

** This was also based on my incorrect belief that Pollack would habitually put himself in the movies he directed, which I guess came from seeing him in Tootsie, the only sizable role he ever played in one of his own films, and his various performances for other directors.

*** I should also mention that, despite his complaint about Oliver's big moment, Ebert mentions in his review that he thinks the character is "nicely developed."



- In the book it's revealed that Harry wanted Eko to name the kissaten "Echo Place," she renamed it "Kilmer House" after he left.

- As previously mentioned, Leonard's Eko has a young son in addition to the adult daughter Kilmer is already familiar with. This means Ken and Eko have attempted to continue living together as husband-and-wife, a concept most likely considered convoluted come rewrites. In the movie, the daughter is their only child and she's the one killed by a stray bullet during the deadly yakuza assault on Oliver's house.

- Dusty survives an inital assassin's attack defending Ken's family, after which Tanaka states he now feels obligated to him (still doesn't help poor Dusty out later - he even loses his shootin' hand before dying in the book). Dusty's clumsy katana wound from the movie is just an excuse after he's injured during this early raid on the house unique to the book; it was obviously considered redundant to the plot and taken out of the script.

- Tanner's daughter and her boyfriend, who disappear in the movie after being rescued, are later found dead in a ditch in the book. Apparently they got re-kidnapped and executed by Tono's gang, although it's not made clear. Once it's clear that events will play out pretty similar to the movie, you realize it's a pretty useless addition to the novelization.

Is it worth finding out what's Beneath the Planet of the Apes? I plan to discover what monkey business Charlton Heston & company get up to in the novelization of the 1970 sequel to the sci fi classic. Ja mata!