Though they have put together a stellar DVD for its release, the fine people at AnimEigo have done a grave disservice to Hideo Gosha’s Onimasa by giving it the hokey surtitle A Japanese Godfather. Admittedly, it seems like a good way to sell the film, but it’s more than a little misleading in its fast-and-loose intimations of kinship to Coppola’s operatic domestic crime drama. Unlike The Godfather, Onimasa is not about the passing of the baton from one generation of yakuza mobsters to the next, but rather an account of the end of a family’s aging patriarch.
Set smack dab in the middle of the Taisho era (1912 - 1928), a transitional period typified by the inescapable presence of Westernized clothing and art, the film follows the steady but gradual decline of Onimasa Kiryu, played with characteristic bravura by an appropriately jowly Tatsuya Nakadai (his angular features earned him the nickname of the “Japanese James Dean”; in his older age, gravity hit his elegant jaw line hard). Though early on he’s shown to embrace the style of the times in the way he wears his fedora with a smirk on his face, his rise and fall is marked by the decades-long neglect of a lacquered horse-drawn cart that he obsessively keeps polished but never uses. While the film gives his adopted daughters and his wife’s stories equal time to unfold, their lives during this period are only relevant as extensions of his need to nominally appear modern and relevant. In reality, he’s too resigned to do more than just threaten to back up his claims of superiority with action (when he tries to rough up a pair of union leaders, his false sense of chivalry leads him to begrudgingly admire his would-be victim and eventually, that man becomes his son-in-law). This isn’t the start of a new story or even a story about the beginning of the end like The Godfather. For Onimasa, it’s all over. It’s just a matter of time before he realizes it.
Which is strange because the film initially appears to be the story of his two adopted daughters. In these bookend segments, the film is positioned as one long recollection of Onimasa’s younger daughter, Hanako (Kaori Tagasugi), after she identifies the corpse of her older sister, Matsue (Masako Natsume). And yet, at film’s end, it’s revealed their real importance is patently negligible: They’re their father’s surrogate legacy, standing in for a generation of sons that were never born (“The Kiryu family dies with me after one generation,” Onimasa serenely laments later in the film). The latter dies alone because she thought she could divorce herself from her father’s fundamentally traditional values and the former, who lives to tell the tale, has happily done the opposite, gaily twirling her antiquated parasol as she walks off into the sunset. Onimasa ends up in jail, having turned himself in after a protracted final confrontation with a rival yakuza leaders ends with a lot of huffing and puffing but no bloody final resolution.
That final fight scene is realistically the film’s ending. In it, Onimasa stumbles through an inordinate number of grunts just to give up once he reaches his intended victim. It’s a sly counterpoint to the famous ending of Kihachi Okamoto’s The Sword of Doom, where Nakadai hacks and slashes his way through an innumerable throng of enemies until the camera leaves us with a freeze-frame of his haunted face. He’ll keep on killing ‘til the bitter end, which doesn’t look to be coming for Sword‘s young Nakadai anytime soon.
Onimasa’s aborted final courageous act on the other hand finally makes the character feel his age. Nakadai’s acting up until this point in Onimasa is theatrically exaggerated, marking how his onscreen persona has aged just as much as Onimasa has. While Nakadai (the performer) alternated between demonic masks of stoicism and determination in his youth, here he never bothers to show us a transitional period between masks. His character’s actions are all a performance and, by the film’s finale, he’s too exhausted to pretend any more.
What’s most striking about Onimasa is the way that it ends with a parting shot of Hanako sashaying into the future in her neatly pressed kimono while the film’s entire story embraces the rumble-tumble of contemporary indecision that plagues its titular protagonist. Like Zigeunerweisen, Seijun Suzuki’s first of three films about the Taisho era, Onimasa presents the assimilation of Western culture not as a novelty but as a matter of fact. Wide-brimmed hats and gramophones are not new-fangled things to be gawped at: It’s just understood that when protagonists bring those things into their home that they clash with the rest of their nostalgically preserved traditional decors. Accordingly, both stories embrace a modernist narrative that relates that staid discord by frenetically focusing on each protagonist in turn, never smoothly transitioning from one story to the next. Onimasa in that way is not so much about a consistent, linear portrait of the Kiryus but rather an expressionistic memoir that samples and highlights the emotional peaks of their lives together. Where Onimasa’s story stops and starts is inconsequential because it’s all the same terrain, flattened to the point where no event or person stands out, even if the story is all about him.
Which raises the question of why the Taisho era was of interest to both Suzuki and Gosha. It’s doubtful that Gosha anticipated contemporary Japan’s more visible role in the global community would eventually lead it to the asset bubble burst six years later. Additionally, the fact that Gosha projects the Taisho Era’s culture clash onto a yakuza leader suggests that he wanted to prevent contemporary viewers from comfortably identifying with his inability to change with the time. Obviously the yakuza exist beyond their generic counterparts but they’re certainly not as relatable as, say, middle-class salarymen and hence are not people the viewer can totally accept as their reflection. Gosha’s not eulogizing Onimasa’s mercurial state of mind but rather letting him die on his sword with a minimum of discomfort.
The DVD's transfer is superb, nicely allowing Hideo Gosha's love of color and layered mise-en-scène to speak for itself. The audio track is similarly dutifully cleaned up from an archival print, whose relatively fuzzy soundtrack is also available on the disc for the morbidly curious.
Apart from some trailers to two of Gosha's other films, the only extras on the disc is a detailed slide show of program notes, which provide lengthy and informative annotations on the culture of the film from dog fighting to the yakuza's origins. The font of the notes is a bit small, but that's just because there's so too much information to process.
A superb, complex drama and a stellar later performance from Tatsuya Nakadai make the film a rare treat for fans of period drama with a generic twist.