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Just when we think that there's nothing new to discover in the Japanese cinema, DVD unveils another eye opener. Hideo Gosha, the stylist responsible for the entertaining samurai and yakuza films The Wolves and Goyôkin, returned a decade later with this epic gangster tale. 1982's Onimasa: A Japanese Godfather (Kiryûin Hanako no shôgai) is told from the point of view of a yakuza chieftain's adopted daughter. It's a refreshing change of pace in yakuza fare, an intelligent and heartfelt multi-generational saga.
In 1918 the wealthy mob boss Masagoro Kityûin, aka Onimasa (star Tatsuya Nakadai of The Human Condition) adopts two children from an impoverished couple. The boy runs away but little Matsue (Nobuko Sendô) becomes a new member of a bizarre yakuza household. Onimasa has several women on the premises to sleep with, a situation accepted by his beautiful wife Uta (Shima Iwashita), who takes an immediate disliking to her new stepdaughter. Onimasa wants Matsue to understand the way of the world, and brings her to a brutal dog-fighting match. When the girl declares an interest in studies, her new father forbids her to think of higher education.
The dogfight initiates a grudge between Onimasa and a close rival, Suenaga (Ryohei Uchida). Onimasa kidnaps one of Suenaga's women and has a daughter by her, the spoiled Hanako. The Big Boss Suda forces a truce, and the obedient Onimasa settles back into his various rackets.
The masterful script by director Gosha, Tomiko Miyao and Kôji Takada carries the proud, imperious Onimasa through over twenty years of yakuza politics and domestic upheavals. Matsue (played as an adult by Masako Natsume) has developed an independent identity despite the constricting conditions. The big change comes when Onimasa is ordered to quell a strike in one of the Big Boss Suda's industries. Inspired by samurai chivalry and social justice, Onimasa instead backs young labor organizer Tanabe Kyosuke (Kei Yamamoto). The move cripples the Kiryûin gang. Onimasa has decided that Hanako will marry Tanabe, but during a series of jail visits the idealistic Tanabe and Matsue fall in love. Outraged, Onimasa takes his revenge on the lovers, as if Matsue were one of his concubines. Incestuous desires break loose when he attempts to rape his adopted daughter.
Although Matsue leaves for a time to be with Tanabe, her ties to Onimasa are never fully broken -- she sticks to the Kityûin "family" through gang wars, sickness and a tragic pregnancy. After a lifetime of resentment, Uta finally reaches out to Matsue; director Gosha interrupts his story with Uta's beautiful memories of her romance with the young Onimasa. The film's conflicts are resolved in a series of sacrifices and personal losses, ending with the proud Onimasa launching himself into a hopeless battle.
With Onimasa Hideo Gosha again proves himself a masterful storyteller on an epic scale. The emphasis favors relationships over stylized yakuza violence, even though the brutal dogfight throws a shadow of barbarity over the entire first half of the movie. After that, everything else in the Kityûin household seems "normal", even when the pre-teen Matsue intercedes in the spiteful arguments between Onimasa's concubines. Often openly erotic, the film has its share of nudity and bits of implied but racy sex.
Onimasa's ultimate focus is the dynamic between Matsue and the swaggering Onimasa. Tatsuya Nakadai lends great presence to the strutting, old-fashioned gang lord in his robes and western-style hats. Despite his harsh authoritarianism, Onimasa earns our admiration when he stands up for his principles. Matsue is a bold heroine for a Japanese genre film. Her life experiences make Scarlett O'Hara look like a sheltered innocent. Matsue is always aware that Onimasa considers her both an adored daughter and his physical property. Refused an education and thwarted in both love and marriage, she never gives in to despair. Strong character acting by Masako Natsume and Tatsuya Nakadai expand Onimasa's appeal far beyond the yakuza genre.
Fujio Morita's rich cinematography complements Gosha's classical direction, making Onimasa one of the standout films of its year. Just as in his earlier classics like Goyôkin, director Gosha films ambushes and swordfight action in a visually arresting, original manner. Mitsuaki Kanno's jazzy music score seems anachronistic at first, but serves as an interesting counterpoint to the operatic emotions in this absorbing domestic gangster saga.
AnimEigo presents Onimasa: A Japanese Godfather in a bright enhanced transfer with good color. Precise subtitles are augmented by definitions of unfamiliar words to help foreigners understand the historical context. A heavily annotated gallery of program notes discusses more details of yakuza culture. Four separate trailers are included in addition to text biographies and an image gallery. It's almost a shame that the packaging graphic is a generic image of the yakuza tattoos on Tatsuya Nakadai's back, as the movie is much more than an underworld action thriller.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Onimasa: A Japanese Godfather rates:
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