One of my personal favorite projects American Yakuza is a really good film that suffers from a really bad title.  Directed with great skill by Frank Cappello the film has some wonderful visual sequences and great character moments, as well as some pretty good low-budget action.

Viggo Mortensen stars as "Nick Davis"

The film stars Viggo Mortensen (left), who is of course, NOW most famous as Aragorn (Strider) from the Lord of the Rings film series.  He also starred in Hidalgo, A Perfect Murder and the remake of Psycho, as well as G.I. Jane, Daylight and Crimson Tide.

I'm quit proud of this film. Although low-budget and a little uneven, this film and The Prophecy, in which Viggo also appeared, doing a memorable turn as "Lucifer", are the films I most often refer people to for examples of my work.  And Viggo was truly outstanding to work with!

The film costarred Ryo Ishibashi (right), an outstanding and talented Japanese actor and a wonderful person.  He has appeared in many Japanese films including the highly controversial Audition.

 Ryo Ishibashi as "Shuji Sawamoto"

Selected Moments - Lighting and Action

Frank Cappello is a very visual director and one of the pleasures of that for a cinematographer is being afforded the opportunity to create exceptionally evocative imagery.  Although our budget was low he wanted to make the film stand out from the usual low-budget action fare with powerful, stylish visuals.  Along with production designer Shay Austin we progressed the overall color palette from a bleak, stark, colorless opening, to a strong, colorful, heavily saturated ending.  Here are a few of those images and moments from the film.

Opening Credits

For the opening title sequence (right) Frank wanted "gritty, but slick," a phrase that became our buzzwords for the production.  This made perfect sense to me.  Frank had very strong visual ideas and specifics about how he wanted to get them.  As Viggo's character is  released from jail at the beginning of the movie we tried to conjure imagery that was bleak but beautiful, going for a sort of stylized hyper-reality.  All shot in slow motion, the camera drifts, never remaining level, just floating.  Even the lights were dollied about and kept in motion during the shot to create movement in the shadow patterns.  The effect of it all is a scene which feels realistic and unrealistic at the same time.  You believe it, but it comes across as dreamlike and poetic, made all the more haunting by David Williams wonderful theme music for the film.

Nick Davis (Viggo Mortensen) is released from prison.

Warehouse Shootout

Nick Davis (Viggo Mortensen) opens fire with both guns blazing. Lots of gun action in "American Yakuza"

(above, left) Barely out of prison Nick Davis (Viggo Mortensen) finds himself caught up in a fierce gun battle when the warehouse he works in becomes the setting of a shootout between an established mafia family and the new Japanese mafia (the Yakuza) attempting to gain a foothold in America (hence, the title).

(above right) This shot from American Yakuza was photographed (and digitized) by second unit DP Art Adams, who's home page contains an online demo reel with lots of stills from American Yakuza (or AmYak, for short) and other works he's photographed. Check it out.

Nick's Apartment

Nick checks on Shuji

Nick sits in the window, waiting patiently for Shuji to recover

(above) After rescuing Shuji Sawamoto (Ryo Ishabashi), American head of the Tendo Japanese crime family, Nick brings him back to his dingy apartment for protection.  There he gets a sleazy medical student to remove a bullet, then patiently waits for Shuji to regain consciousness.  I wanted a high contrast look in this scene  Again, it's "gritty, but slick."  I deliberately let things sink down into pure blacks of exposure edged by hot, overexposed points in the frame.  We wanted it to look as if we hadn't lit anything at all, and yet the only way to achieve that sort of heightened reality was to light it, creating a stylized look that evoked more than it showed.

Shuji is Recovered

Window Image 1 - The Limos Arrive Window Image 2 - We reveal Nick watching more clearly

Shuji recovers enough to utter a phone number to Nick, who calls it, then hides across the street to watch unnoticed as members of the Tendo crime family recover their boss.  Originally we wanted to do this shot using a polarizing filter and "dial out" the reflection during the course of the shot, but it seemed a bit too artificial when we saw it, so we opted instead to make our point using lighting on Nick and go for a simple change of focus as we pushed in on Viggo.

The Nightclub

Nick sits at the table in the Nightclub Shuji (Ryo Ishibashi) at his table in the nightclub listens as Nick tells his story.

A grateful Shuji Sawamoto (or "Shu," as Nick calls him) brings Nick under his wing and invites him to dinner at the family owned nightclub.  As a cinematographer this was a wonderful scene to light.  By now we have introduced vivid colors as part of Nick's association with the family and the "brightening" of his life that it brings.  We used Xenon searchlights to sweep the club providing moments of hot, blue backlight, mixed with the warm light on the faces from practical table lamps.  The walls had intricate patterns carved into them so we put golden-yellow Kino-Flo bulbs around the room, mostly on the floor and mostly keeping the bulbs hidden from view (though not always, as you can see here) to make the patterns stand out and to give the room an expensive, golden temple like feeling.  Ironically, both Nick's tenement apartment and the lavish nightclub were shot in the same place, the former Herald Examiner building in downtown Los Angeles, where much of shooting took place.

The Ceremony - Nick is brought into the Tendo Family

(right and below) The ceremony scene was where Nick Davis (Viggo Mortensen) was officially brought into the Tendo family, an honor never previously shared with an outsider.  In the story it was, symbolically, like a wedding, and that's how we tried to photograph it, with flowing white curtains and crisp, formal blacks.  It was a bright scene, contrasting the rest of the film which was very dark.  We actually lit the scene directly through the paper walls, using them as diffusion, then setting backlights above to give the characters a hard edge.  The set was built by production designer Shaye Austin, who did a wonderful job throughout the course of production.  Although she had very little to work with she always made sure I had something good to point the camera at.

The Ceremony Scene from "American Yakuza"

(below) Nick shares a look with Shuji as they recite their vows and accept each other as sworn brothers unto death.

Viggo Mortensen

Ryo Ishabashi

Viggo as Nick - medium shot

Ryo as Shuji - medium shot

Yuji Okumoto as Kazuo

Yuji Okumoto (left) played Kazuo, a sort of Lieutenant to Shuji. Kazuo hates Nick and doesn't trust him until Nick finally proves his loyalty when he risks his own life to save Kazuo after a gun deal goes down wrong. Here, Kazuo acts as Nick's translator, explaining what is being said at the ceremony and letting Nick know what to do..  Yuji has since appeared in many things including Pearl Harbor, The Truman Show and Contact.

The Final Shootout

Shuji and Nick with guns blazing defend the nightclub Nick flies over the bar, guns blazing, to save Shu's girlfriend.

Nick Davis decides to side with his friend Shu in a final shootout at the Tendo's nightclub when the local Mafia decides to eradicate the invading Japanese once and for all.  This was a lot of fun to shoot, although we had only a single day to do the entire shootout sequence including all lead up and other scenes.  Trying to do a John Woo style shootout with a fraction of the budget and resources was challenging, to say the least.  One of my favorite moments was one Frank insisted on where Viggo literally flies out from behind the bar (photo above right) with guns blazing, rolls across the floor and rescues Shu's girlfriend from the attackers.  It added a balletic quality to the action that was very enjoyable.

Also appearing in the film was actor Nicky Katt, (Dazed and Confused, Boston Public) as "Vick," son of the mafia boss played by Michael Nouri.  Nicky is visible in the background of this shot watching as Shuji puts a sword to his father's throat.  I got to work with Nicky again when we did Dean Koontz's Phantoms.

Nicky Katt as "Vick" watches Shuji put a sword to his father's throat.

Production Epilogue

We all worked very hard on this movie.  It was my first full feature as a DP, Frank's first as a director, and everyone involved wanted to make this film as good as we could make it.  I think we surprised many people who didn't expect this movie to turn out as well as it did.  I'm very proud of it visually and in spite of the tight schedule and low budget I believe this film to be head-and-shoulders above others movies in the same genre, budget and era. 

I always hoped the film would be "discovered" and find a wider audience.  I think, perhaps, the title put people off as it sounded like it'd be a cheesy sort of movie.  When the film was released on video I thought surely some keen-eyed reviewer looking for emerging talent would discover our little gem and champion it as "better than you'd expect with some good stuff."  Sadly, when the first (and at the time only) review of the film showed up in Premiere Magazine's video release section the whole review read simply: "American Yakuza: - Gesundheit."

That was it.  Entirely.  And thus was a year and a half of hard work by many people totally dismissed for a quick joke about the title on the part of a reviewer who, I suspect, never even watched the film.  Thanks, Premiere.

The film was very successful in its theatrical run in Japan and did strong business worldwide.  It was imitated by other companies trying to capture the same level of success in the market (see The Dangerous, made shortly after our film.  I heard firsthand that the producer actually had them looking at ours and saying, "This is what I want! Why can't you give me this!").  I know American Yakuza has its flaws, not everyone likes it, but for the resources we had no one can ever make me feel bad about it.  It was our first feature and we tried hard to make it stand out from a crowd of similar, bland, cheesy exploitation action films.  We had to deliver the action scenes, that was our job and I feel we did it well, but we also tried very hard to do it with more style than most, to make the characters interesting and to be as classy as circumstances would allow.  Those with an eye to appreciate up and coming talent (such as Viggo) should recognize that even at this low level, everyone made a strong effort to produce a good motion picture.

Whatever the User Comments on IMDB I'm happy to have been a part of this one and to have had the pleasure of meeting and working with such a fine group of people.  I especially enjoyed working with our cast, particularly Viggo and Ryo, both of whom I hope to someday get a chance to work with again if the Fates should allow it.  I didn't need Lord of the Rings to know Viggo was a prince.

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