Saturday, September 29, 2012

Onimasa (1982) Movie Review

When young Matsue and her small brother are given away as payment by their poor business running parents, local Shikoku gang boss, Onimasa Kiryuin (Tatsuya Nakadai) sees potential heirs to his powerful Shikoku  gumi. But when the younger of the two runs away, leaving his elder sister alone to become a conflicted servant, it is an odyssey for this entire family of criminality as the modern world threatens to swallow them up. Dark samurai film master, Hideo Gosha's first major film of the 1980s, Onimasa (Kiryuin Hanako no Shogai) is at one instant an attempt to send off the classical gangster drama with a manner of grace, but on another, an admission of an auteur's inability to let go within a changing landscape. Based upon Tomiko Miyao's novel, "The Life of Hanako Kiryuin", for a film made in 1982, it is an unapologetically old-fashioned work that flirts with the pre-Fukasaku mindset in regards to the yakuza, but also reinforces the less-than-flattering-elements that are best seen through the eyes of Matsue (Nobuko Sendo- then later Masako Natsume) who recalls much of this story in flashback after the discovery Hanako's body by locals in 1940. - A choice that immediately makes for an unusual, almost sudsy opera with a feminine edge.

Starting her life under the wing of the charismatic, and old-world Onimasa, her greatest wishes to become more worldly comes at great odds with her new father's vision. So when he and his gang abduct Otsuru (Akiko Kana), a rival gang leader's servant who later gives birth to his only biological heir, it is this disconnect that bears the brunt of the film's thematic heft. While the headstrong Matsue grows into a well-rounded schoolteacher, it is his daughter, Hanako, who has become an insufferable brat of an adult. Gosha's delivery of this smoldering ball of hubris feels a less like a Coppola-esque epic, and something closer to a stage play rendition-- which is made all the more bombastic through Nakadai's larger-than-life performance. His pride & belief in a romanticized Japan of noble men, and sidelined women becomes more and more undermined by history, with new angles slowly caving in throughout the two-hour plus running time.

From her younger days, Matsue is seen able and more than willing to make her new family happy, without sacrificing her dreams in the process. Sendo's scenes carry with them a notable amount of bravery, especially in a sequence where Matsue not only is tasked with facing up to a potential lie with an elder boarder, but becoming a young lady in the process. Scenes such as these are hints of a much more contemporary nature for Gosha, and imply what will only become a deeply complex relationship between father and adopted daughter. As externally tough as his wife, Uta (Shima Iwashita) seems to be, it is the heart of Matsue that offers up a world beyond anything he is equipped to deal with. It's the kind of relationship that renders him completely out of his element, resulting in some truly challenging stumbles along the path. So when she grows up, and eventually falls in love with a local labor (Eitaro Ozawa) leader during a railroad strike, Onimasa is torn between his enduring love of Matsue's defiant nature, and her ultimate act of departure from him. What culminates here could so easily disturb some, but offers up such a payoff that says more implicitly than any hackneyed speech ever could.

And despite the original source material which was centered largely on Hanako, Onimasa's biological daughter, it is the weighty counter of Matsue that provides much of the film's drive. With her as the more cinematic odd-one-out, the film's use of objects (ex. her wish for money to buy a pencil VS. Hanako's wishes for a hair bow) makes for some non-subtle leaning. In fact, when she falls for a man, Onimasa bullies early on, and eventually acquiesces to, it is made clear by way of a German language book that she brings with her during her visit to him in jail. An educated, essentially cut-off man of society, he is of a quantity almost completely alien to the world of gambling, dog fights, and gang violence. Hanako herself (Kaori Tagasugi) becomes less a central character, and more a shadow of the world Matsue is attempting to carve. Even when the spoiled daughter becomes the lynchpin to the piece's finale, one wonders if the poor thing ever had a chance at all with such an upbringing.

Not unlike the title character, Gosha defiantly creates a film that fits firmly within the gangster and costume dramas of the past as if to openly admit that the 1980s is simply lost on him. The cinematography is at times classical, and often retro in heavy lighting. For as straightforward as the narrative plays out, events skip forward not unlike taking a peek at an aged novella with rotted pages beginning to fall out. What isn't seen is not always missed however, and the almost TV movie aura lends itself to the script's often soapy nature. Which is again largely buoyed by Nakadai's strangely appropriate turn as a remnant of the past on a single-minded quest to become a chivalrous businessman, to often tragic results. But the director also harbors a glimmer of hope, embodied especially in the radiance of Natsume who only a few short years later, passed away to leukemia in her late twenties. Somehow, their work here shines beyond what is ostensibly a heavy-duty melodrama in the old tradition.

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