An truly epic Japanese gangster film
Onimasa is a man who believes in his own legend. An oyabun-boss of a local yakuza group, he likes to see himself as an honorable and “chivalrous man” instead of the brutal, egomaniacal thug that he really his. Onimasa believes in the code of “outlaw hero,” and manages to lie to himself about the nobility of his own actions even as he buys young daughters from poor local merchants and then sells them into prostitution, or works as the strong-arm for a boss even more powerful than himself.
An intricate and multi-layered film, “Onimasa” (“Kiryuin Hanako no shogai” or “The Life and Times of Kiryuin Hanako”) was the second yakuza collaboration between director Gosha Hideo (The Geisha) and that legend of Japanese cinema Nakadai Tatsuya (Harakiri). Their first collaboration, The Wolves, was an unqualified success and it seemed only natural to put the two powerhouses back together for a follow-up in the genre.
Whereas “The Wolves” was a personal, almost Shakespearian tale of revenge, “Onimasa” is an epic sprawl, spanning the years from 1918 and up to the 1940s. The influence of 70s-era mafia films (and cheesy music) is palatable, as Gosha attempted to emulate the generational aspect of those stories as well as the balance between admiration and repulsion one has for the characters.
The story begins when Onimasa, the preferred nickname of local gangster boss Kiryuin Masagoro, comes to a local merchant who desires his protection but has no money to offer. The merchant has a surplus of children, and offers one of his sons to the ganglord. Onimasa takes the son, but also decides to grab a daughter while he is there, and snatches the young Matsue from the family because he likes her looks. The decision proves to be a wise one, for as the son is a weak and fragile boy who does not long last in Onimasa’s household, Matsue proves to be strong-willed and able-bodied, and thrives in the dangerous environment.
The story follows both Onimasa and Matsue through the years, as Matsue struggles to come out of under the fist of Onimasa’s wife, (Iwashita Shima, Double Suicide) and the various concubines who see Matsue as a brat and a potential threat to their positions. Onimasa continues to work his will as he may, still seeing himself as something of a hero to the local populace who quake in fear at the sight of him, and trying to balance his worldview with the commands of the Big Boss Uichi Suda (another Japanese legendary actor, Tanba Tetsuro, Under the Flag of the Rising Sun) who cares nothing for honor or chivalry, only for profits.
Onimasa’s worldview comes to a crisis when he meets Tsujihara Tokubei, an idealistic student who supports the working man, and would rather die than betray his ethics. Tokubei forces Onimasa to come to terms with his own evil nature, and the fact that Onimasa is not the hero of the common people that he likes to believe. Of course, it is only a matter of time before Tokubei catches the eye of the now-grown Matsue (Natsume Masako, Antarctica), something that Onimasa likes not at all, no matter how fond he is of the brave young man.
And that is only brushing the surface, without getting into details of Onimasa’s beautiful, spoiled and stupid daughter Hanako who is actually the character the film is named after (“The Life and Times of Kiryuin Hanako”) yet who plays a relatively minor role. Along with that is Onimasu’s long-standing grudge with a rival oyabun, and far, far too many plot points to be jammed into a synopsis.
For all its grand intent, “Onimasa” is not as good a film as the more focused Gosha/ Nakadai film “The Wolves.” Gosha plays around with too many elements here, swinging somewhat wildly back and forth, almost unable to decide for himself if Onimasa is hero or villain. Nakadai plays it both ways, and thus Onimasa comes off as both a powerful and a weak character, difficult to get to know.
The sexuality of “Onimasa” is almost jarring as well, incorporating elements from the Pink Film genre that I was unaccustomed to seeing in a Gosha film. Onimasa is a unrepentant sexual being, taking who he wants when he wants, caring nothing for the opinion of the woman. His intentions towards his adopted daughter Matsue are unclear from the very beginning, until an explosive scene makes it all too clear.
The film carries Gosha’s signature style, of a long slow burn leading up to an explosive finish, but two and a half hours the burn is too long, twisting down too many roads and following too many characters that by the time of the final showdown it comes off as more of a whimper than a bang. The lengthy epic of a gangster’s life was done better later with Sai Yoichi’s Blood And Bones.
Which is not to say that “Onimasa” is bad. Even a weaker Gosha/Nakadai film is still worth watching, and there are elements here that are beautiful and brutal. Probably the best moment is when a grown-up Matsue shouts at an attacker, “I am the daughter of Onimasa! Don’t fuck with me!” This is a classic line of Japanese film, one repeated over and over by schoolgirls with a bad attitude.