“The Yakuza” (1975, Warner Archives) Ex-private eye Robert Mitchum is hired by Brian Keith to settle a beef with Japanese gangster Eiji Okada, whose displeasure over an arrangement gone wrong has led to the abduction of Keith’s daughter. Mitchum is sent to Japan, where he encounters an old wartime flame (Keiko Kishi), as well as her brother (Takakura Ken, “Black Rain”), a former hood who puts aside his disregard for Mitchum to help orchestrate a blood-soaked rescue mission. Directed by Sydney Pollack (“Three Days of the Condor”) and penned by Paul Schrader (“Taxi Driver”) and his brother Leonard (with help from Robert Towne, fresh from “Chinatown”), this thriller works overtime to keep all its parts in play – violent set pieces, bittersweet drama via Mitchum’s reunion with Kishi and Ken, terse discussions of honor, obligation and Japanese organized crime culture – and at times, it sacrifices emotional impact in favor of addressing all of these elements. “The Yakuza” works best when it focuses on Mitchum and Takakura Ken’s partnership, which lends a weary, worn humanity to the occasional didacticism and copious bloodshed. WAC’s Blu-ray includes commentary by Pollack recorded in 2007, as well as a lengthy vintage making-of featurette and a trailer that underscores the company’s uncertainty on how to market the film, which led to its dismal showing at the box office.
“Cops vs. Thugs” (1975, Arrow Video) Relentlessly grim and violent yakuza drama from veteran director Kinji Fukusaku, who helped to define the Japanese take on gangster/crime films with his sprawling “Battles Without Honor or Humanity” film series. Here, he reunites with writer Kazuo Kasahara, who penned “Battle” and several sequels, and the star of that series, Bunta Sugawara, who offers another variation on his brutish, taciturn screen persona. Here, he’s a cop in the pocket of mobster Hiroki Matsukata, whom he’s forced to turn against when a new supervisor orders a crackdown on mob activity. Densely plotted and lacking any redeeming characters in its huge cast, “Cops” is textbook ’70s yakuza fare, dashing madly from violent showdown to emotional standoff, with Fukasaku’s handheld camerawork underscoring the chaos at the heart of these men’s lives. If you’re not ready to dive into “Battles,” or the “New Battles” follow-up series – both of which are available from Arrow Video – here’s a good place to get your first taste of Japanese crime drama. Arrow’s Blu-ray offers interviews and essays on Fukusaku and yakuza films, while the director himself is front and center for a brief interview and behind-the-scenes clips.
“Doberman Cop” (1977, Arrow Video) Okinawa detective Kano (Sonny Chiba, “Kill Bill”) and his potbellied pig (yes) travel to Tokyo to assist police in solving a long-dormant murder case. Once there, he discovers that the alleged victim may in fact be aspiring singer Miki (Janet Hatta), who is the protégé of a yakuza gang determined to make her a star through a TV competition (again, yes). Kano, who is depicted as both a savage brawler (he’s the “Doberman Cop” of the title) and a naïve, deeply superstitious hayseed, sets out (with his pig) to uncover the truth about Miki and the murdered girl, which unspools in a dizzying array of musical numbers, drug den dives, a hostage showdown and some inappropriate handling of the pig. Positioned as far away from the grit-streaked universe of “Cops vs. Thugs” as possible “Doberman Cop” – which was also directed by Kinji Fukasaku – is delirious pulp nonsense (it’s based on a manga by Buronson of “Fist of the North Star” fame), mixing cop action, wild stunts and very broad comedy, all overlaid by a very heavy-on-the-one funk soundtrack. Hardcore Japanese crime devotees might find their patience tried by the colliding elements, but psychotronic cinema devotees who have waited decades for a Stateside release will be rewarded with one very bizarre and entertaining title. Arrow’s Blu-ray includes interviews with Chiba (the second half of a lengthy career overview begun on their “Wolf Guy” Blu-ray), screenwriter Koji Takada and Fukusaku biographer Sadao Yamane, who details the film’s unfortunate box office run.