Sunday, May 16, 2010
Brian Keith, Robert Mitchum, and Herb Edelman were buddies during the war. They served in the occupation of Japan, and it changed their lives forever. Edelman became a scholar and lives modestly in Tokyo, where he teaches at the university. He also has an awesome collection of weapons, legal and illegal. (I’ll tell you, friends, if you ever find yourself trapped in a noir plot, be sure to have an old buddy with his very own armory.) Keith’s into shipping, smuggling, and the Yakuza for a whole lot of money. And Mitchum, well, he’s Robert Freaking Mitchum, and that’s all you need to know.
So Keith needs help with his little Yakuza problem. He buys Mitchum a ticket to Tokyo, asking him to work things out. It’s wintertime in Japan: cold, slushy, and nasty. Mitchum knows enough of the patois and the culture to get by, but he’s still an alien in an alien land. The Japanese, even (and especially) the gangsters, have these rigorous moral codes that are damn hard to crack. He needs someone to help him out, to show him the way, and he calls on Takakura (at the time, Japan’s biggest star). That’s when things get interesting.
See, Takakura’s a force in his own right. A Kendo master with deep, if conflicted, ties to Mitchum, he’s on his home turf. This sets up a great dynamic, one that’s unique in the world of noir. See, Mitchum can’t play the part of “the one good man” in Tokyo; the city would eat him alive. He also can’t be the “lone tough bastard,” at least not all the time; again, the city would eat him alive. Thus, he’s put in the position of sidekick for much of his own film. It works. Takakura has such a commanding, formidable presence that we buy Mitchum taking his lead. And as the story twists and turns, with the two stars swapping leadership roles as the situation requires, we’re right there with them. For a while, we even start to think that everything’s going to be ok.
But it’s Tokyo, Bobby. It’s Tokyo. And there are some things a foreigner will never understand.