The Yakuza: Ken Takakura in Blue Denim

Ken Takakura as Ken Tanaka in The Yakuza (1974)

Ken Takakura as Ken Tanaka in The Yakuza (1974)


Ken Takakura as Ken Tanaka, disciplined ex-Yakuza

Kyoto, Japan, Spring 1974

Film: The Yakuza
Release Date: December 28, 1974
Director: Sydney Pollack
Costume Designer: Dorothy Jeakins


Today would have been the 90th birthday of Ken Takakura, the Nakama-born actor with a record four Japan Academy Prizes for Outstanding Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role. His presence in yakuza films through the 1960s brought him to the attention of screenwriting brothers Leonard and Paul Schrader, who wrote their action drama The Yakuza with Takakura in mind. Robert Aldrich, who had directed Takakura in the actor’s first American film Too Late the Hero (1970) was originally slated to direct him again here until Robert Mitchum was signed on to star and requested to work with a different director.

Mitchum plays retired detective and war veteran Harry Kilmer, sent to Japan to track down the kidnapped daughter of an old friend. To complete the task, Kilmer seeks to cash in on the decades-old debt owed him by former gangster Ken Tanaka (Takakura), now teaching at a kendo school in Kyoto.

I’ll try, but I don’t know how much I can do… I’m no longer Yakuza.

What’d He Wear?

Ken’s departure from the traditional world of the yakuza is signaled by his clothing as he’s dressed from head to toe in denim, his trucker jacket conspicuously branded with the familiar Levi’s “red tab” on the dextral side of the left pocket flap. The cut and details of Ken’s jacket date it to after 1962 when Levi’s introduced the “Type III” 557 (and later, 557XX) jackets to replace the older knife-pleated “Type II”. (You can read more about the history of Levi’s denim jackets at Heddels.)

Constructed from a rich dark indigo blue denim, Ken’s waist-length jacket is detailed with all the hallmarks of the classic Levi’s Type III including six copper rivet buttons up the front with matching buttons to close the cuffs and fasten the adjuster-tabs positioned toward the back of each side of the waist. It wasn’t until the early 1980s that Levi’s would add additional hand pockets to its venerable trucker jacket, so the sole outer pockets on Ken’s jacket are two chest pockets aligned just below the horizontal chest yoke with substantial pointed flaps that each close through a single button.

Ken Takakura as Ken Tanaka in The Yakuza (1974)

Ken eyes his old acquaintance over tea.

Given that this is The Yakuza, one of the great turtleneck movies of the ’70s (as illustrated by both Takakura and Mitchum), Ken layers his trucker jacket over a comfortable pale gray turtleneck made from a light cashmere that flatters Takakura’s lean, athletic physique.

Ken Takakura as Ken Tanaka in The Yakuza (1974)

Ken’s jeans are nearly a perfect match for his denim jacket, though I propose that he may not be wearing Levi’s but Wrangler jeans given the sharp and high angles we see stitched over the back pockets that resemble the “W” back-stitching on the North Carolina-based clothier’s signature 13WMZ jeans. Ken hold up his jeans with a black leather belt.

In accordance with Japanese customs, Ken doesn’t wear shoes inside, thus he sits opposite Harry with just his black socks on his feet.

Ken Takakura as Ken Tanaka in The Yakuza (1974)

Harry follows his friend’s example, honoring Japanese tradition by sitting in his stockinged feet inside.

Ken Takakura and Robert Mitchum on the set of The Yakuza.

A leather-clad Ken Takakura with Robert Mitchum on the set of The Yakuza.

Ken Takakura’s denim was also the subject of a Clothes on Film article, in which Christopher Laverty posits that Ken’s black leather jacket, worn for an action-packed sequence to follow, may also be a Levi’s product:

Ken wears similar clothing throughout the film – an East / West smart-casual combo. Of particular note is a black leather jacket seen when he and Kilmer storm a yakuza stronghold about mid-way through the story. Again worn with popped collar, it in fact fits very similar to the Trucker, as in close to the body and almost cropped by modern standards, although this is less noticeable because jeans and trousers were routinely cut much higher back then. This leather jacket could have even been made by Levi as they were producing items in a similar style at the time and shipping them internationally.

Most significant though is what all Ken’s casual ensembles represent: a rejection of his yakuza past, but, and this is most significant of all, not its ideology.

How to Get the Look

Ken Takakura as Ken Tanaka in The Yakuza (1974)

Ken Takakura as Ken Tanaka in The Yakuza (1974)

Ken Tanaka may honor his decades-old oath and promises, but he’s otherwise moved on from the past to embrace a new career and contemporary clothes like his head-to-toe denim by way of a Levi’s trucker jacket and jeans.

  • Pale gray cashmere turtleneck
  • Indigo blue denim Levi’s “Type III” trucker jacket
  • Indigo blue denim jeans
  • Black leather belt
  • Black socks
  • Steel wristwatch

Do Yourself a Favor and…

Check out the movie.

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