The Yakuza

Schrader vs Schrader

Martin Scorsese read “The Yakuza”, a speculative script sold in a spectacular bidding war in Hollywood in 1974. He wasn’t the director Paul Schrader wanted, however; according to Peter Biskind, Schrader wanted a “Tiffany” director. (1) At this point, Scorsese did not for Schrader occupy a place on that particular list.

Schrader’s older brother Leonard had been in Japan since 1968. He returned to the United States in 1972 when the Vietnam draft was no longer a likely prospect for him. He had been teaching English for a college he described as a Berkeley equivalent, until student revolution closed it down and he spent most of his time in nightclubs, becoming acquainted with Japanese gangsters, or yakuza. He wanted to write a novel about them, but Paul persuaded him to write it first as a screenplay, getting an advance of $5,000 through his own agent. He described it as “The Godfather meets Bruce Lee”. (2)

They spent eight weeks writing three drafts of the script and were finally finished at the beginning of January 1973. Following a meeting at Warner Bros. with John Calley, the script went for auction and sold for an unprecedented amount: $325,000.

Tom Stempel quotes Schrader on the deal:

For weeks Robin [French, his agent] was going out and doing the complete word-of-mouth routine, going to dinner parties and saying, ‘There’s this fantastic script out.’ We hit all the right people. It got to the point where people were calling us and asking for scripts. Robin told us to refuse to accept any offers for five or six weeks. Finally, he opened the auction. The day the auction opened there were 16 bids, all in the vicinity of $100,000. It kept going up. (3)

Leonard took only 20% of the money while Paul and his agent took 40% each. Paul insisted that Leonard only get shared story credit. Schrader’s other agent, Michael Hamilburg, would take a co-producer credit on the film.

Story: Structure: Content

The Yakuza

The story concerns Harry Kilmer (Robert Mitchum), an ex-GI whose World War II buddy in Japan, George Tanner (Brian Keith), needs his help when his daughter is kidnapped by the eponymous yakuza after he has reneged on a deal. Kilmer doesn’t realise that he is being used as bait and travels to Tokyo with Dusty (Richard Jordan), Tanner’s young sidekick. His trip brings him into contact with Tanaka Eiko (Kishi Keiko), his former girlfriend whom he rescued from a life of penury, along with her infant daughter. She now runs Kilmer House, a nightclub built with Tanner’s money. Harry needs to see her brother, Tanaka Ken (Japanese star Takakura Ken), to extract a favour, but discovers he has retired from his life as a yakuza. Harry is too embroiled in the situation to leave Tokyo before finishing his business there. He discovers the unpalatable truth of Ken’s relationship with Eiko – they are husband and wife – and realises that Ken walked away because he saw that Harry had saved her from a far worse fate when Ken had been a victim of the war (“Ken is a relic left over from another age and another country.”)

In the same way that Hanako explains certain of the peculiarities of the Japanese to Dusty, Wheat is also a ‘translator’ of history and relationships in the film. Wheat’s expository voice-over to Dusty explains:

Then in 1951, Eiko’s brother, Tanaka Ken, returned from the dead – he’d been living for six years in the jungle caves of the Phillipines. He thanked Harry for rescuing Eiko and saving her daughter, but he told Eiko he could no longer speak to her. Don’t forget, this was just after the war. She had placed him forever in debt to his enemy and it was torture for him. Ken left his sister and became one of the most successful Yakuza in occupied Tokyo. Eiko, meanwhile, would no longer see Harry, much less marry him. Harry was beside himself. He tried and tried with Ken – but it didn’t do any good. So, when his enlistment was up, he borrowed five thousand dollars from George, bought a coffee shop and bar and gave it to Eiko as a sayonara gift (4) – she still runs it today.

[The Yakuza screenplay, p. 25]

The film turns on the notion of family, which forms a strong motif in the film’s action:

• Harry has no family.

• Harry is hired to rescue Tanner’s daughter.

• Harry is reunited with Eiko, with whom he had a relationship, and who also has a daughter.

• Eiko’s ‘brother’ Ken owes Harry a debt.

• Ken has an older brother, Tanaka Goro, oyabun or advisor to the clans, whose own son is a violent yakuza, turning against his own father and family. Ken hasn’t spoken to Goro in many years.

• In the same way that Harry is ultimately Tanner’s pawn, Goro’s position as counsellor is being threatened by Tono, Tanner’s ‘enemy’ in the yakuza war, who turns out to be his ally. Thus Harry and Goro are also linked.

• Ken is actually Eiko’s husband, and he is so grateful to Harry for saving her life and that of their daughter, Hanako, that he steps aside, in an extraordinary sacrifice of his own personal happiness

• Ken has retired from the yakuza, his alternative ‘family’. He, like Harry, has no family.

• Harry kills Tanner.

• Ken and Eiko’s daughter is killed by Goro’s son in yakuza crossfire in Wheat’s apartment, in a parallel to Tanner’s daughter’s kidnapping, which catalysed the whole story. Ken kills Goro’s son in revenge.

• Ken kills Tono.

• Harry makes a sacrifice to honour Ken, and in doing so becomes a part of Ken’s family at last: his brother.

This motif is a strong feature of the dialogue:

Yeah, Ken has a habit of not speaking to relatives, doesn’t he? Do you have his address? Could I see him?

[p. 70]

Goro tries to explain Ken’s character to Harry:

— Yes, he’s insufferable at times. Honourable men usually are. He’s also unique in one other respect – Ken is a lone wolf of sorts, very rare in Japan. He neither takes nor gives orders – years ago he broke from our family when he was to become the youngest in all of Japan – I’m ashamed to admit that when he broke away. I neither assisted nor protected him. But he survived. As a result he is under no obligation to me, and would not welcome my help. Even if he would, this affair with Tono has put me in an awkward position as well.

[p. 76]

Later, Harry says to Ken:

(taut, unhappy)
If you don’t care about yourself, at least let me get your sister and family out of here. (5)

[p. 91]


Eiko is afraid to breathe for fear of offending you. That’s all she worries about. Why, I don’t know.

It’s Japan.

— Even for Japan it’s strange.

In any case, it’s not your family.

This stings Kilmer, really hurts him.

No – not, it’s not.

[pp. 92-3]

However, just after this exchange, Ken confronts rival yakuza in a nightclub restroom where he surprisingly defends Kilmer in another scene which effectively builds on his enigmatic persona:

(in Japanese et seq.)
Tanaka-san. Someone will pay us to rough up that American, but we don’t want any trouble with you.

Ken, looking in the mirror, does not turn and face the Yakuza.

He is family.

Bullshit. He’s an American.

Family. (6)

[pp. 93-4]

Later on, he continues to jibe Kilmer:

What have you been doing all these years, Kilmer?

The question really is an acceptance of Kilmer’s position and Kilmer recognises it as such. They turn together and start to walk back.

Quite a few things – police work, private investigations, real estate, investments …

— You’ve done well?

Depends on how you figure that kind of thing.

(not unkind)
Yes. You have no family, do you?


The way Kilmer says this it’s a confession.


[p. 108]

Change is also a strong feature in the story – for instance, Kilmer doesn’t drink any more (in an alteration to dialogue at the bottom of p. 53); and Japan has experienced total modernisation:

Everywhere I look I don’t recognize a thing.

[p. 30]

The story takes place against a background of contrasts: between Japan old and new, both in terms of how it has changed since World War II and the age-old rituals of the yakuza, and the differences between Japan and the United States, which Dusty discusses with Harry:

When an American cracks up, he opens a window and shoots up a bunch of strangers, he shoots out – When a Japanese cracks up, he closes the window and cuts inward … (does mime of hari-kari with his fingers) Everything’s the reverse, isn’t it? When an American has an orgasm he says “I’m coming.” When a Japanese has an orgasm, he says, “I’m going.”

Kilmer smiles.

[pp. 100-1]

The Yakuza

Once director Sidney Pollack was on board, Robert Towne was hired to completely revise the Schraders’ screenplay and he shares credit with Paul Schrader on the finished film; Leonard Schrader is relegated to story credit. Towne’s draft is dated 18 December 1973, which means he must have written it during the production on Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974). Thematically the film should have appealed to him: the idea of a loyalty between two men that refuses to die, despite its unpleasant ramifications (Kilmer and Tanner, Kilmer and Ken); the blending of East and West in a formal gangster film that bases its structure around the traditional samurai film, which would have proved highly attractive in the aftermath of writing Chinatown, which refers to many aspects of Orientalism without providing historical referents; a resurrected romance which proves impossible (this also has its echo in Chinatown); and the mentor-student relationship between Kilmer and Dusty, something that has as echo a scene between Ken and his kendo student, Takano:

(to student, in Japanese)
Takano-san, what were you thinking?

Takano removes his mask. Unlike Ken, he’s breathing heavily. He bows.

To be as forceful as possible.


Because … I’m afraid I’m not aggressive enough.

Get rid of thinking you must have a certain attitude. Get rid of thinking. Don’t expect to win … don’t expect to lose.


Takano and the others absorb this.

But Sensai, what should I expect?

Ken’s eyes widen slightly. He straightens up a hair. It’s almost the change of an animal that has scented something on the wind.


Expect nothing.

[p. 46]

Towne described the film thus to the American Film Institute:

[…] in Japan, Yakuza films are sort of B-movies, where these gangsters … they’re sort of a combination of … if you took out soap operas on daily television and our B-gangster movies and mashed them together, you’d get a Yakuza film. Because the Japanese are very melodramatic, particularly in these films, in almost everything. And all these gangsters are stricken with this terrible sense of duty and obligation, that they’re obliged to do these things, so that in the end they end up killing 25,000 people or themselves or both or mutilating themselves. What was interesting to me was that the story deals with an American who goes over there to do a favor for an old friend. And in order to do this favor for an old friend, he has to see a Japanese gangster whose sister he had once been in love with, and asks him to help him rescue this friend’s daughter from other Japanese gangsters. And the kind of tangled web of obligation that results from this was interesting to me to work with, to make actions that are almost kind of … they’re really like a fairy tale. You just don’t imagine some guy getting to the point where he’ll be able to kill 25 people. To try and make that credible was interesting to me. And it deals with things like loyalty and friendship and abiding love, and it’s very romantic. And it was fascinating to me. (7)

The primary problem with the film is its exposition, which frequently appears awkward and results in explanatory voice-overs over montages of action and travel. This is ironic, given Towne’s views on screenplay construction:

Generally speaking […] scripts are too talky. And when there’s a problem, it’s usually because the script lacks clarity. Sometimes when creative people are insecure they can get esoteric. But striving to be understood – that is the mark of anybody who’s really gifted. I always ask myself what the scene is really about, not the events, but the subtext, and try to do it as simply as possible. (8)

The Yakuza

Towne described the Schrader screenplay at the American Film Institute speaking there January 22, 1975:

I took it to be my task in reworking it, in the structural changes I made and in the dialogue changes and the character changes, to make it, from my point of view once you accepted the premise, credible that this American would go over there, would do this, would get involved in the incidents that he got involved in the script which would involve recovering a kidnapped daughter and then ultimately killing his best friend and killing 25 other people along with it and immolating himself. And I thought that in my reading of it, I just didn’t feel that he was provoked in the right way to do all that. It’s hard to make it credible that somebody would do that, and I tried to make it, from my point of view and the point of view of the director, more plausible. Not absolutely plausible, but plausible in the framework of this kind of exotic setting. […] When I had read it, I said these are the things that I felt should be done, and they agreed with me, so I did them. But it was pretty much agreed upon with the director and myself. (9)

With the exception of scene ordering in certain sequences, the released film is remarkably faithful to the screenplay draft by Towne. Certain scenes have been dropped entirely, however, including an in-flight samurai movie during Harry’s journey to Tokyo, which may have been a reference too far. Perhaps in order to bring greater symmetry to the story, Eiko’s son is also excised from the story proposed in the screenplay – in fact it is he (Taro) who gets killed at Wheat’s apartment, and Hanako who survives. He no longer figures as a character at all, while Hanako’s death provides a thematic rhyme to the kidnap of Tanner’s daughter.

In a highly symbolic screenplay (the opening titles explain the origin of the word yakuza being formed from the numbers eight, nine and three), Hanako’s death also signifies the death of Ken and Eiko’s marriage, and, ironically, the impossibility of Eiko’s marriage to Harry. Hanako’s role in the story is highly significant: she has a warmer, more straightforward welcome for Harry than her mother; she explains yakuza rituals to Dusty, who falls for her immediately; and her ultimately violent demise (an ironic antithesis to her name which she explains means “flower child”, in a casual reference to the American anti-war protesters during the then on-going Vietnam war: Dusty is a Vietnam veteran) proposes a softening of Ken’s apparently implacable character.

It is also important to note that Hanako is a teacher of the English language and can thus communicate equally to both ‘sides’ of the story. (This is especially true in consideration of the film’s other throughline, duty.)

A Yakuza pays his debts,
A Yakuza does his duty,
A man without debt,
A man without duty,
Is not a man. (10)

[p. 91]

The translations and explanations of one culture to another take place primarily at Wheat’s apartment, which serves as a sort of locus of cultural détente in the film. Paradoxically, it is here that Hanako is killed, perhaps suggesting that such détente is impossible.

It is Hanako who explains the concept of “giri” or duty (also translatable as “burden”) to Dusty, who is of course performing his official duty for Tanner, to whom Harry is also “dutiful”. When Dusty realises Tanner’s treachery, he swears allegiance to Harry instead because Harry has earned his respect. The symmetry continues in the sense of history repeating itself. First, Ken returned in 1951 to find his wife living with Kilmer; now Kilmer has returned to Japan to find Eiko unquestioningly loyal to Ken, whom Kilmer discovers was her husband all along. Second, the unswerving loyalty that leads Kilmer to help out an old friend and then kill him is echoed in Ken’s loyalty to his old yakuza friends, whom he must kill. The formal mirroring structure is strengthened in the budding relationship between Hanako and Dusty, which comes to an untimely end. And, of course, Kilmer is a mirror-image of Ken, while Tanner is a mirror-image of Tono:

[…] characters on a chessboard, each programmed to make a certain number of set moves; the Yakuza code dictates such, and nobody questions its right to direct his or her life. For Kilmer it is a welcome discipline, and a not unfamiliar one. The tension in the film springs from the fascinating moves of each character across the board, the sudden outbursts of violence signalling the loss of one or more pieces from the game. Nothing could be further from the Western gangster film: personal feelings play little part – moral obligation is everything. (11)

Ken cuts off his little finger as apology to Goro; likewise, Harry cuts off his little finger as apology to Ken.

No man has a greater friend.

[p. 140]

Schrader meanwhile produced an article called “Yakuza-Eiga: A Primer” for Film Comment in January 1974, a ‘primer’ for an understanding of Japanese gangster movies. (12) It traces the genre’s history from the samurai film and elucidates its themes, conventions and stylistic elements. This article is in line with other of his critical writings; for instance, his famous piece on film noir, published by the same journal.

The Yakuza

The genre evolved from the samurai film and took its various elements, themes and ethical codes into a modern Japan. It was principally made by the Toei Studios from the mid-1960s and approximately one hundred films a year were made. One of the genre’s fans was a writer called Yukio Mishima.

The Yakuza is, of course, also linked with noir, given that its protagonist, Harry Kilmer, could be said to be in a line of prototypical noir detective heroes – an anachronistic throwback, cynical, worldweary, and double-crossed, but with a heart that is steadily revealed to be alive and kicking through the revelatory scenes of his former relationship with Eiko. Interestingly, the script extract published at the top of Schrader article is not credited to anyone but is marked with the copyright of Warner Bros. Studio. It is almost exactly a replica of Towne’s draft, pages 138 –141.

In terms of genre convention, Schrader points out that, “Yakuza films are litanies of private argot, subtle body language, obscure codes, elaborate rites, iconographic costumes and tattoos.” (13)

Structurally, the screenplay is a clever byplay between an elaboration of conventional narrative exposition and evocations of the yakuza rituals, most of which are founded on violence and honour codes. Rather than obscuring the experience for the viewer, this form of exposition lends itself to the creation of an astonishing character – Tanaka Ken, whose entire post-WW II existence appears to have been founded on an extraordinary personal sacrifice in order to retain his honour and repay his debt to Harry Kilmer.

As Schrader explains,

Genres are not free flights of the imagination. The art of a genre occurs within the strictures. Only when one understands that icons are supposed to be two-dimensional does the study of their shape and form become interesting. Similarly, it is only after one understands – and appreciates – the genre conventions of yakuza-eiga that the study of its themes and styles becomes enlightening. (14)

It is not clear when precisely Towne became involved, but it was at the behest of the studio (Columbia and Warner Bros.). In terms of Sydney Pollack’s output as director, the film’s theme, namely, “survival in the face of appalling odds”, seems to belong to what one critic describes as “familiar Pollack territory”, echoing the filmmaker’s concern “with the loser rather than the winner” (15). The reviewer finds that the relationship between Kilmer and Eiko is a “mirror-image” of that between Hubbell (Robert Redford) and Katie (Barbra Streisand) in Pollack’s previous film, The Way We Were (1973). Thus, in typical auteur-critical fashion is located the strand connecting The Yakuza with other films in the Pollack canon – character and theme, bringing together elements of the director’s worldview, as evidenced in his entire output. Similarly, in the review published by Films and Filming, the writer finds “the theme of survival has remained the one consistent strand throughout all his films” (16).

Commentator Michael Sragow suggests that

[…] a director like Sydney Pollack deserves all the praise he gets for keeping a complicated movie coherent, but he still needs screenwriters around to get scenes down on paper before he puts them on film. (17)

The Yakuza and Credits

Asked why he took on the project, Towne replied:

Trying to imagine someone reaching the point where he’ll kill 25 people. Trying to make it credible that this American would go to Japan to recover a kidnapped girl, kill his best friend and 25 other people and mutilate himself. In reading the original script, I didn’t feel he was provoked in the right way to do all that. I tried to make it more plausible. (18)

In Peter Biskind’s account, Paul Schrader later felt guilty about the credits situation on the film:

I had always treated Leonard badly. Taking sole screenwriting credit on The Yakuza wasn’t very nice. Treating him as an employee wasn’t very nice. Throughout all that, he had one thing that I didn’t have, which was Japan. And then came Mishima[: A Life in Four Chapters, 1985], and I stole Japan from him. To do Mishima was his idea. (19)

They never spoke again.

As for Towne, he spoke about the situation in the aforementioned AFI seminar: “… it’s an original script by Paul Schrader and his brother Lennie. Now exactly who did what I’m still vague on.” (20)

Primary Source

The Yakuza draft by Robert Towne, dated 18 December 1973.


  1. Peter Biskind, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997), p. 246.
  2. Biskind, p. 291.
  3. Quoted in Tom Stempel, Framework: A History of Screenwriting in the American Film (Continuum, New York, 1991), p. 231.
  4. “she called it ‘Kilmer House’” is an addition to this line in the film.
  5. In the film the line is “at least let me get Eiko and Hanako out of here”.
  6. In the film Ken actually says, “I said family.”
  7. Robert Towne speaking at the American Film Institute seminar, 22 January 1975: transcript at the Louis B. Mayer Library, AFI pp: 9-10.
  8. Quoted in “Your Write to Win”, The Times, London, 14 April 2003, p. 14.
  9. Speaking at the American Film Institute seminar, pp.10-11.
  10. In a furthering of the film’s attempt to formally blend East and West, this song is followed by “My Darling Clementine”, that staple of the Western film genre, and all the nightclub audience sings along. The review of the film in Time Out points out that “there emerges the familiar and increasingly explicit relationships of countless American Westerns”. Tom Milne (Ed.), The Time Out Film Guide, second edition (London: Penguin Books, 1989), p. 754.
  11. “The Yakuza”, Films and Filming, Vol. 21, No. 12, September 1975, p. 37.
  12. Paul Schrader, “Notes on Film Noir”, Film Comment, Vol. 8, No. 1, Spring 1972.
  13. Paul Schrader, “Yakuza-Eiga: A Primer”, Film Comment, January 1974, p. 13. American Film Institute seminar, pp. 9-10.
  14. Schrader, “Yakuza-Eiga: A Primer”, p. 15.
  15. “The Yakuza”, Films Illustrated, Vol. 4, No. 47, July 1975, p. 405.
  16. Films and Filming, p. 36.
  17. Michael Sragow, “Ghostwriters: Unraveling the Enigma of Movie Authorship”, Film Comment, March 1983.
  18. National Film Theatre programme May 1988: p. 8. He was quoted from the AFI seminar, when he added, “When I had read it, I said these are the things that I felt should be done, and they agreed with me, so I did them. And then where they disagreed with me, we went around with it. But it was pretty much agreed upon with the director and myself.” American Film Institute seminar, p. 11.
  19. Biskind, p. 426.
  20. American Film Institute seminar.

About The Author

Elaine Lennon is currently completing PhD research on the screenplays of Robert Towne at the School of Media in Dublin Institute of Technology where she lectures on film and screenwriting. She has an M.A. in Film Studies from University College Dublin and has worked in film and television production in Ireland and the United Kingdom. She has recently been Writer in Residence for her local authority in County Cavan, Ireland.

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