Wednesday, January 20, 2010

ONIMASA: A JAPANESE GODFATHER (1982)

Animeigo has released Hideo Gosha's film on DVD this month on the strength of a well-received theatrical showing during a Tatsuya Nakadai festival in New York two years ago. The American title makes Nakadai's yakuza boss the title character, which is a little deceptive. On the other hand, the original Japanese title translates to "The Life of Hanako Kiryuin," which is equally deceptive. The true main character and narrator of the story is Onimasa's adopted daughter Matsue, played by the tragically short-lived Masako Natsume. Nakadai inevitably dominates the film with a flamboyant performance, but we see his career and the life of his natural daughter Hanako through Matsue's eyes. This is a Toei production, from the studio I regard as Japan's answer to the Warner Bros. of the 1930s. But this feels more like a 1940s Warner film if the American studio had attempted a merger of its gangster and women's picture genres.

Fashions of Tatsuya Nakadai

"The Life of Hanako Kiryuin" opens with the discovery of Hanako's corpse in 1940. Matsue identifies the body and that launches a film-long flashback. In 1918 she and a brother were purchased from a poor and overpopulated family by Onimasa, aka Masagoro Kiryuin, and his barren wife Uta. The kids aren't keen on this idea and the brother runs away, but little Matsue sticks it out, in part because her father might die if she doesn't. She expects life to continue as before, but when she tells her new dad that she has to go to school, he tells her that education is no good for girls. Instead, he'll take her out for a good time -- at the dog fights.

Onimasa has no dog in this fight, but he takes the side of an upstart trainer whose dog scores an upset over the champion beast of rival boss Suenaga. When Suenaga and his wife cry foul, Kiryuin tells them to shut up and go home. When they later murder the winning dog, Kiryuin takes up the owner's cause and demands satisfaction from Suenaga, who has skipped town, leaving his wife to offer her body for sex to satisfy Kiryuin's grievance. He passes, preferring a man-to-man fight that gets broken up by the police and arbitrated by the bosses' common patron, Sir Suda (Tetsuro Tanba). This feud will simmer through the whole picture before coming to a boil toward the end.

Onimasa emerges as a charismatic, capricious character. He has a small harem of concubines in the hope of getting a true child, driving his sickly yet steely wife to drink. The concubines feud with each other, with little Matsue often ending up in the middle. In one typical over-the-top scene, Onimasa decides that a dispute between Matsue and one of the concubines should be decided through a trial-by-bitchslap. When another concubine intervenes on her side, Matsue pleads with Onimasa to make them stop fighting while he looks on with amusement. To top the scene off, Matsue gets her first period on the spot.

Matsue is a willfull and defiant child. Against Onimasa's wishes, she continues her education to the point when she can become a schoolteacher. We begin to notice that Onimasa admires her defiance. He admires defiance in general, a whimsical idiosyncracy that gets him in trouble. One of the less glamorous tasks of a yakuza is strikebreaking, and Sir Suda assigns Onimasa to break up a traction strike. He confronts a labor leader, Tanabe, who denounces him as Suda's pet dog. Onimasa dares him to say it again. Tanabe keeps saying it even as Kiryuin puts his head through a window and beats the crap out of him. Onimasa now respects his defiance and thinks hard about Tanabe's claim that the self-described "chivalrous" yakuza should take the side of the poor and helpless against their oppressors. He ends up taking Tanabe's side, defying Suda and putting his rackets in danger. He even decides that Tanabe, temporarily imprisoned, should marry his now-grown daughter Hanako when he's freed. But when Kiryuin sends Matsue as a messenger, her intellect (she reads the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke in the original German) so impresses Tanabe that when the time comes for him to ask any favor he likes of Onimasa, he asks to marry Matsue, not Hanako. The boss freaks out, assuming that Tanabe has already been screwing the young woman. To defend her honor, Tanabe offers Onimasa one of his limbs, but the boss is content with the usual yakuza portion of flesh, the pinky.

Onimasa has a like-hate relationship with labor activist Tanabe (Eitaro Ozawa, lower right)

There's more to this than people messing up Kiryuin's marriage arrangements. How much more emerges when Matsue is sent to tend to a drunken Onimasa, who suddenly grabs her and attempts a bit of situationally incestuous rape. Only when Matsue threatens to cut her own throat with a broken glass does he relent, a little petulantly. "Do you really hate me so much?" he grumbles, "Well, sorry."

Despite this, we see a bond of genuine familial affection develop between father and adopted daughter, just as one develops between Matsue and her initially harsh and occasionally abusive mother, whom Matsue nurses through a fatal bout of typhus that nearly takes Matsue herself. For all his occasionally monstrous outbursts, we're supposed to like Onimasa. Even Tanabe, who has reason to hate the man, ends up admiring the down-to-earth sincerity that makes him strong. Gradually, we see the same quality in Matsue, who proves to be a better daughter to Kiryuin than Hanako, who develops into a childish ninny and ultimately betrays her father.

This is Her Life: Kaori Tagasugi as Hanako Kiryuin, the title character for Japanese audiences.

But all the things that make Onimasa arguably more admirable as a man are weaknesses in a yakuza boss, and the enemies he's made finally destroy his family, though not before he finally settles scores with Suenaga in a bloody showdown. By this time Matsue is a widow, but her time in Onimasa's household have made her tough and self-reliant. While Hanako spirals toward an early death, Matsue moves on with her life, but not before what the liner notes call the movie's most popular moment. Determined to pay her respects at Tanabe's funeral, she runs afoul of his aristocratic dad, who refuses to let her have some of his son's ashes. After a struggle she shoves him aside and faces down his flunkies. "I'm the daughter of the chivalrous man," she tells them, "I'm the daughter of Onimasa ... you better not fuck with me!"

Like father, like daughter: they don't take crap from anyone.

Onimasa is a colorful melodrama with multiple moments of Scorsesean excess that threaten to topple across the border of soap-operatic camp. This is not the film to see for a realistic portrayal of yakuza life. The main reason to see it is for Nakadai's flamboyant performance as the mercurial oyabun. Kiryuin is a showcase role that lets the great actor roam across a wide emotional range, from bloodstained badass to poignantly pathetic. Nakadai feasts like a gourmand on every opportunity, and Masako Natsume holds her own with him, winning a Best Actress award for her work here, three years before leukemia claimed her at age 27.

As a crime film this doesn't come close to Kinji Fukasaku's masterpieces of the Seventies, but Gosha isn't trying to make that kind of film. It's really a women's picture with yakuza trappings, with bits of intense yakuza violence included to keep men interested. The American title Animeigo's using may lead some viewers to be disappointed with what they actually see, but if you understand what you're going to get going in, you may well find the film quite entertaining. It's no classic, but fans of Japanese and global cinema who've admired Nakadai's work in films from Harakiri to Ran (not to mention his spaghetti western Today It's Me, Tomorrow You) should like what they see here.

The trailer uploaded to YouTube by evilwrenchman is pure Japanese, but the above should give you some clue as to what you're seeing.

3 comments:

Rev. Phantom said...

I'm very intrigued by this era of Asian films (late 70's/early 80's). Seems there was certain level of...grittiness (for lack of a better word) that really appeals to me. I will lookout for this one.

Samuel Wilson said...

Rev., you can stretch that back a ways into the early 70s on the strength of Kinji Fukasaku's yakuza movies and pretty much anything Sonny Chiba did.

cerita dewasa said...

nice story from this film