Saturday, January 02, 2010

Demon In A Fedora: Animeigo's 'Onimasa: A Japanese Godfather'

Whether in the west or the east, the world of organized crime has always been a favored subject for filmmakers. Whether it’s ‘Dillinger’, ‘Scarface’, ‘The Godfather’, or ‘Graveyard of Honor’, this genre of filmmaking has attracted more than its share of big name stars and directors. The yakuza (roughly analogous to the Mafia) genre in Japan has proven particularly popular, spawning long running film franchises in matatabi eiga (traveling gambler films), ninkyo eiga (chivalrous yakuza films), pinky yakuza films, and regular yakuza films. These ranged from the exploitation films churned out by Toei Studios (although as you'll see not ALL of them were B-movies) to top of the line A movies that garnered multiple awards and honors. Animeigo’s new DVD release of Toei's ‘Onimasa: A Japanese Godfather’ (Japanese title ‘Kiryuin Hanako No Shogai’-The Life Of Kiryuin Hanako, 1982) falls into the latter category. Helmed by noted director Gosha Hideo (who also co-wrote the screenplay with Takada Koji) and based on a story by popular author Miyao Tomiko, Onimasa traces the fortunes of the Kiryuin yakuza family for roughly 20 years (1918-1940). The film was nominated by the Japanese Academy of film for virtually every award imaginable-Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Lighting, Best Sound, Best Score, Best Art Direction, Best Screenplay, and Best Cinematography (it ended up winning Best Art Direction). With a storied director and a lineup of top rate talent (Nakadai Tatsuya as Onimasa, Natsume Masako as Onimasa's adopted daughter Matsue, Iwashita Shima as Onimasa's wife Uta, Tanba Tetsuro as crime boss Suda Uichi, and Tagasugi Kaori as Onimasa's birth daughter Hanako), Onimasa examines the world of the yakuza on a personal level, giving the characters a level of depth and individuality not always seen in crime dramas.

The ‘Ki’ in the family name ‘Kiryuin’ uses the kanji for ‘demon’, and serves as the yakuza family’s symbol. It also gives clan scion Kiryuin Masagoro (Nakadai) his nickname-Onimasa. Onimasa is not only a play on the initial kanji of his first and last names, but also establishes Masagoro as ‘Demon Masa’-someone not to be trifled with. As the film opens, Kiryuin Matsue (Onimasa’s adopted daughter) stumbles across a tragic scene which gives her cause to reflect on her life as part of the Kiryuin family. Her days with the Kiryuin begin when Onimasa arrives at the home of an underling who wishes to win his favor-in this case by giving Onimasa one of his sons to adopt. However, Onimasa seems to be far more interested in his young daughter Matsue, and ‘suggests’ that he take both. It proves to be a wise choice when the boy, who had been slated to become Onimasa’s heir, runs away the first evening and is never seen again. Matsue instead is instructed in the ways of the yakuza, and part of her initiation into the culture is being taken to the local dogfight arena. The film's central conflict between the Kiryuin family and the Suenaga family of Tachiyama is established here when a quarrel erupts between the two factions over the result of a match. While Onimasa wins the first round by intimidating the Suenaga into leaving the arena, the situation quickly reverses when the Suenaga poison the dog that defeated theirs. The dog’s owner comes to Onimasa for help in evening the score, which Onimasa does by kidnapping Suenaga’s daughter. Suenaga flees the area and Onimasa is prevented from tracking him down when his boss, Suda Uichi (the crime overlord of Shikoku island), forbids him to do so.

Time passes and the kidnapped daughter Tsuru becomes one of Onimasa’s concubines, and produces an heir for him-a daughter, Hanako. While this shifts his attention from his adopted daughter Matsue, it seems to work to her benefit when she is allowed to pursue a formal education. Everything seems to be going fine until Boss Suda sends an intermediary to suggest that Onimasa take a hand in stopping a labor strike on the Tosa railroad. One of the labor leaders, Tanabe Kyosuke, refuses to back down from Onimasa and calls him 'Suda's pet dog', earning himself a violent beating-but also earning the respect of Onimasa, who begins to question his own actions. How can he reconcile his self image as a 'chivalrous man' with helping out big business and the government at the expense of the common man? Onimasa refuses to follow Suda's instructions, turning him into an enemy. Suda instead uses his connections to have the labor leaders arrested to end the strike.

Onimasa, intrigued by Tanabe, tells Matsue to visit him in jail and see that he's supplied with proper food and other necessities. A common love of literature and education sees the two fall in love, and when Tanabe is released he gets a rousing welcome from Onimasa. Until, that is, he asks for Matsue's hand in marriage. Onimasa becomes enraged (he had planned to marry Tanabe to his birth daughter Hanako) and when Tanabe tells him he can take 'an arm or a leg' as an apology, Onimasa instead employs the yakuza tradition of having Tanabe cut off part of a finger. An even darker reason for his anger is revealed when Onimasa attempts to rape Matsue (telling her that she's been his since the day she arrived years ago). Sickened, Matsue leaves the family. Eventually she is brought back to nurse Onimasa's wive Uta who has come down with typhus, which Matsue also contracts. Matsue survives and eventually heads to Osaka to marry Tanabe.

However, Onimasa's troubles are just beginning. After arranging another marriage prospect for his daughter Hanako, he finds that his old enemy Suenaga and his new enemy Suda aren't going to leave him or his family in peace. His world goes to hell in an incredibly short period of time, and virtually his entire family is sucked into the vortex as well. Even Matsue is drawn back into the expanding web of violence. This being a yakuza film, it's a good bet that Onimasa won't take things lying down-but things from this point are better seen than described so as not to ruin the surprises.

Onimasa is the type of film that seems to have been written with star Nakadai Tatsuya in mind. While Nakadai has displayed tremendous range throughout his career (with my favorite Nakadai performance being his semi-comedic character in ‘Kill!'), he seems most suited to roles that call for a ‘detached intensity’-that of a cool and collected character who at a moment’s notice can explode into violence and unrestrained anger. This dichotomy gives most of Nakadai’s performances an unpredictability that might be absent had someone else played the part. As Kiryuin Masagoro in Onimasa, Nakadai’s performance encapsulates the essential conflict of the character-he’s torn between his desire to be a chivalrous, honorable champion of the common people and the harsh realities of running an organized crime syndicate. As is usually the case, in trying to do both he manages to do neither. At one point in the film, when getting some bad news Nakadai displays an open mouthed, slack jawed look of shock and amazement that perfectly sums up Masagoro’s inability to come to terms with his situation. While at times his performance seems to go over the top, it’s in keeping with the theatrical style designed to intimidate both underlings and enemies that was used by many yakuza bosses. And there's just something incredibly badass about a yakuza that combines a traditional kimono with a gangster's fedora...

The film also has a strong focus on its female characters. In many ways it foreshadows Gosha’s next film, ‘The Geisha’. They’re both based on books by popular Japanese author Miyao Tomiko and feature an emphasis on the women in the story. Even though the film is called ‘The Life of Kiryuin Hanako’, the film version concentrates much more on Masagoro’s adopted daughter Matsue. Matsue is played by Natsume Masako, and her performance won her a Best Actress award from Japan’s Blue Ribbon panel. Much like Masagoro, Matsue experiences inner conflict between her desire to live out a simple and productive life educating children and her feeling of duty towards her adopted father and his organization. Despite her best efforts to break free of the yakuza, her family connections tragically drag her and her husband back in. Ironically, she is only able to leave the yakuza lifestyle behind by first accepting her legacy as Onimasa’s daughter. According to Animeigo’s program notes, her harsh response of 'Nametara akanzeyo!' (translated here as ‘don’t f*** with me’) to several of her disapproving father-in-law’s friends became a popular catchphrase in Japan during the 1980’s. The uncomfortable relationship between Onimasa’s wife Uta and his two (later three) concubines is explored as well, with Uta doing her best to insure that the other women are no more than 'furniture...I can buy you or throw you out.’ Relationships between the concubines are often just as rocky, manifesting themselves in a spirited slapfight orchestrated by Onimasa. However, sometimes these fights conceal deeper motivations-when Uta becomes sick she confesses to Matsue she's always been tough on her in an attempt to keep her out of the yakuza life and not have to live a life like hers. And what of the ‘title’ character, Hanako? Well, Onimasa’s birth daughter is poorly fleshed out and a minor part of the story when compared to the other women-which may have been director Gosha’s plan all along, adding another dose of futility to Onimasa’s situation. Hanako provides the framing sequence for the movie and also the justification for the final battle, but otherwise serves as a contrast to the capable and intelligent Matsue.

Picture quality is outstanding and Animeigo gives viewers two options for the soundtrack-the original unrestored version (complete with all its original flaws) or the ‘cleaned up’ restored version. Subtitles can be viewed in either white or yellow, and can be set to display dialogue, translations of onscreen signs or text, both, or eliminated entirely. Animeigo’s translations continue to be among the best in the business, giving a more straightforward version and explaining obscure passages in onscreen cultural notes rather than ‘dumbing down’ and simplifying the translation.

Extras for the disc comprise the standard Animeigo lineup, minus the interactive map that has been included on most recent releases (the film takes place almost exclusively in a small town in Tosa on the island of Shikoku, so the map isn’t really missed). There are four different trailers for the film, and each uses unique footage combined with footage from a ‘master’ trailer. There are also trailers for two other Animeigo releases directed by Gosha-'The Wolves' (another excellent yakuza epic starring Nakadai) & 'The Geisha'. There’s a still gallery which also includes poster art. There’s a section for actor/director bios, which was useful for establishing where Onimasa fit in the careers of many of the stars. There were a couple of minor errors here-it’s stated that 'Zatoichi' was a TV series that became a movie series (the opposite is true), and that Nakadai’s character in the film ‘Ran’ was the Emperor (he was instead a daimyo or feudal warlord, one among many). Rounding out the extras are Animeigo’s typically excellent program notes, here giving viewers a substantial amount of background on the world of the yakuza and Japanese culture of the early twentieth century. There are even nice little touches like having background characters 'fade out' of menu graphics, leaving only Onimasa in sharp focus. Perhaps Animeigo did this to symbolize his self-centered world view-or maybe they did it because it looks kewl. Either way, it works.

Whether you’re a fan of the yakuza genre or crime films in general, you’ll find plenty to like about Onimasa. Hardcore chanbara fans will find that even despite its twentieth century setting it’s much like a yakuza film or Zatoichi/traveling gambler film set in the Edo period. It’s a film that has brutality but never lapses into gratuitous violence-where characters are shown as the flawed beings they are but never losing their humanity-and a film that showcases the complex world of the yakuza where the players were by turns criminals, heroes, dishonest, honorable, hated, and loved. You can order Onimasa directly from Animeigo or from Amazon.

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