Score by Dave Grusin
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Story: An American ex policeman comes to Japan to rescue a friend's kidnapped daughter, and comes head to head with an ancient secret society there
Dave Grusin's special affinity for the geographical setting of “The Yakuza” has given the picture a textural background which allows western audiences to concentrate on the drama and action by easing them melodically into an Asian environment. The score and orchestration convey a sense which director Sydney Pollack describes as one which “felt and sounded Japanese without being too strange for western ears.”
This motion picture represents their initial collaboration, begun in 1973, according to Pollack, though 1975 is stated as release date in most sources.
There are two opening themes in “The Yakuza.” The first one is Japanese, playing over text explaining the meaning and history of the `society.' It continues faintly under a subtitled conversation in Japanese. As this scene ends, there is a slightly threatening motif in the music, after which the main titles run under a piece which is western in nature - a mixture of contemporary, almost psychedelic sound, opening into a very warm orchestral theme foretelling the journey of a return to the past by the leading character. There is only a small amount of Japanese color in it.
The next major musical segment is an attractive mixture of romantic underscoring and narration fading in and out over images of Kilmer making his way to Eiko's café along with Oliver telling his story. Starting out delicately, the music becomes very warm and languid, enhanced by a sultry saxophone which emphasizes a sense of longing and nostalgia. It ends on a delicate note once more as Kilmer and Aiko's eyes meet.
After their initial conversation, sparked by Eiko's daughter's words, “you look just like I remember you,“ there is a charming sequence of photographs of the past. A tender and bittersweet melody is played by piano with light orchestral backing, the sense of times remembered enhanced by the silent scenes of Eiko and Kilmer chatting happily. This theme begins again as he leaves, taking him into a Tokyo night, but is jarringly ended by loud action in a kendo hall, amply indicating that the interlude is not the centrepiece of the picture.
Many conversational settings in “The Yakuza” are accompanied by simple Japanese flute or banjo, with only indigenous percussion to flavor them. These are particularly pleasing cues, and in most cases, quite soft. They sometimes reinforce the mood of the scene; in other instances they temper or play against what is going on.
This is most notable in the great revenge scene. A very interesting decision was taken to used gentle and poetic Japanese underscoring to accompany one of the most violent sequences in the film - where Ken and Kilmer take on a house full of men with guns and sword. This adds a ritualistic sense to the violence, harking back to the `obligation' which is being met by this attack. This is an extremely long cue, lasting quite a few minutes.
There is also strong use of varied Japanese percussion in silent moments before (and occasionally during) other action scenes, sometimes as accent to western suspense music, sometimes representing the heart of the cue.
With all the refined underscoring in the film, it should be noted that there is a very contrasting cue - with intense, loud and pounding piano - in the Grusin song “Only The Wind” which appears as source music in a nightclub scene.
Although there are numerous instances of incidental cues which are totally western or entirely Japanese, it is the subtle mixing of the two, either simultaneously or blending from one to another which emphasizes musically the culture clash which is taking place on the screen.
The theme over closing titles is completely western, and unusually optimistic, as if to say the Japanese period in Kilmer's life is now over completely, not just in fact, but resolved in his mind as well.
Stars: Robert Mitchum, Takakura Ken, Brian Keith, James Shigeta, Keko Kishi
Director: Sydney Pollack
Producer: Sydney Pollack
Released: Warner Bros. 1975