by Del Harvey
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Director Hideo Gosha’s “Onimasa” could easily be considered a Japanese Godfather. It follows over two decades in the turbulent life and violent career of Onimasa, a gangster, his ill-tempered wife, his mistresses and his two daughters. Matsue is his older, adopted daughter. Hanako is the younger daughter, born to him by a concubine. Onimasa’s house is so full of family turmoil it is surprising that he does not simply kill these women, given his temperament in normal circumstances. But that is the intriguing and compelling thing about Onimasa’s character - he is the glue that holds everything together; whether at home or within his gang.
The film takes place mostly in the 1920’s and 1930’s, and throughout the two and a half hour running time we do get to see Onimasa’s prowess in running profitable gambling and prostitution rackets as well as in fighting off the competition.
Toward the end of the film we learn that Onimasa, played at fever pitch by Tatsuya Nakadai - perhaps best known for his roles in Akira Kurosawa’s ”Kagemusha” and ”Ran”, is just an old softie. Contradictory though this may sound, especially after he has tried to rape the sweet-tempered Matsue and has driven Hanako to madness and life as a prostitute.
There is plenty of Yakuza action in this period-piece drama. True to so many films of this type, and just as true to the era, Onimasa’s final fight scene is realistic, if not a little overly dramatic. A warrior of the Yakuza code, Onimas keeps fighting and grunting until he reaches his intended target, proving to any onlookers that his ambition will take him farther than many other men could go. And that’s the rub. Without the proper education or knowledge, at the end, Onimasa is just another thug, just like Don Corleone and all the rest of the gangsters.
Extras in the DVD include trailers for two of Gosha’s other films and 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.
Del Harvey is the founder of Film Monthly, a film teacher, a writer and a film critic in Chicago.
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