Sword of Desperation

4.0 out of 5 stars Well done Fujisawa Shuhei adaptation

Sword of Desperation

A film doesn’t need to be innovative to be good. Sometimes it is enough to do a straight take on a classic genre, to hit all the beats in perfect rhythm and fluently play a familiar tune. “Sword of Desperation” does just that. In the opening scene when loyal samurai retainer Kanemi Sanzaemon walks up to Lady Renko, the favored concubine of Kanemi’s lord Ukyo Tabu, and stabs her in the heart, you know just what you are going get. And that it will be good.

The genre here is author Fujisawa Shuhei (The Bamboo Sword: And Other Samurai Tales), whose work has come to define modern Japanese samurai fiction. Far from any kind of “Kill Bill” action, Fujiwara wrote introspective, melancholy tales that dove deep into the psychology of the rank-and-file soldiers or Edo period Japan. Fujisawa’s heroes are not the leaders and great lords of the castle, but stolid, loyal retainers who must fight a constant inner battle between personal feelings and duty to lords who often don’t deserve loyalty.

Ever since director Yamada Yoji re-introduced the world to Fujisawa with his samurai trilogy (The Twilight Samurai, The Hidden Blade, Love and Honor) –arguably the finest samurai films since Kurosawa stepped behind the camera–Fujisawa has become the Zane Grey of Japanese samurai fiction. Kurotsuchi Mitsuo directed The Samurai I Loved based on a Fujisawa tale. And now director Hirayama Hideyuki gives us another.

“Sword of Desperation” (Japanese title: “Hisshiken Torisashi” or “The Bird-Catching Desperate Sword”) is a by-the-numbers Fujisawa story (It even takes place in Unasaka-han, the fictional province that serves as the background for most of his samurai yarns). All of the familiar tropes are present; two righteous men being slowly moved into a confrontation that neither of them desires. A gloomy man living his life under a death sentence who suddenly finds a reason to live in an unlikely love affair, but whose sense of duty is stronger than his passion. Political corruption at the high levels, and lords who use their retainer’s high ideals against them, manipulating them like pieces on a chessboard into battles without honor.

And then of course, there is the “Sword of Desperation” itself. Like Fujisawa’s “The Hidden Blade,” the title refers to a secret sword technique known by only one man, an indefensible strike that can only be used at the moment of greatest desperation–the moment of explosive death that we spend the entire film waiting for.

Director Hirayama doesn’t play around too much with “Sword of Desperation.” Fujisawa’s tales are, by their nature, intimate affairs, and Hirayama tries to capture that. He adds a few touches of cinematic flair. The mirroring of the opening Noh performance with the final scene worked very well. His use of the flashback device that fades to black-and-white is effective, but not consistent, leading to some confusion about when you are in a flashback.

A strong cast is necessary for this type of film, and fronting “Sword of Desperation” is veteran actor Toyokawa Etsushi (20th Century Boys) as Kanemi Sanzaemon. Kanemi is a tormented man, whose wife’s death left him depressed and suicidal, until he saw an honorable out for himself by assassinating the favored yet controlling concubine of his lord, the spoiled, weak-willed Ukyo Tabu. Toyokawa gives Kanemi the gravity and presence necessary for the role, and plays all of the faces of Kanemi from groomed court samurai, to scruffy prisoner and wander, to the demon he eventually becomes. Toyokawa is playing somewhat against type in this film, which is probably helped him win the 2011 Japan Academy Award for this role.

Equally strong is Ikewaki Chizuru as Rio, the niece of Kanemi whose love for her uncle is more than familiar. Kikkawa Koji plays a good opposite as Lord Obiya, the righteous noble whose path sets him directly against Kanemi, even though they should be standing together.

If there is any real weakness to “Sword of Desperation,” it is that the film is too by-the-numbers. A straight take on a classic genre can give you a very good film, but not a great one. With his samurai trilogy Yamada Yoji combined Fujisawa’s source material with potent and powerful acting and directing, and set the standard for all others to follow. Hirayama just isn’t the genius that Yamada was. But it seems strange to fault someone for not being a genius. Being very good is good enough.

A few notes on the DVD: Animeigo still does the best subtitles in the business. I know there will never be issues there. The DVD for Sword of Desperation is bare bones, with only a few trailers and some production notes. But still, a nice release.

The Geisha

5.0 out of 5 stars Memoirs of Momowaka
The Geisha

Anyone who has seen Memoirs of a Geisha should have to watch this film for balance. “The Geisha” (Japanese title, “Yokiro,” which is the name of the geisha house), is a true look behind the white make-up and fancy silks of the flower-and-willow world, and into the people who practice the profession. It isn’t elegant or pretty. Geisha are like ballet dancers who exude grace and beauty while hiding bruised and damaged feet under dainty pink sandals.

The story follows Momowaka (Ikegami Kimiko, House), the daughter of a female-procurer and his geisha lover. Her mother was murdered when Momowaka was a child, and her father (Ogata Ken, Vengeance Is Mine) sold her to the Yokiro geisha house when she was twelve. Under the harsh tutelage of the Mistress of Yokiro Momowaka has grown to become the top geisha in the most famous geisha house in Western Japan. She is perfect in form and figure, but empty inside and cold like a statue. Momowaka frustrates her patrons who find that although they can rent her body they cannot touch her heart. Her father, a blunt and hard dealer in flesh, is neither a good man nor a bad one. He sells his daughter to a geisha house and his underage lover to a brothel with little regret, but at the same time he has single-handedly protected Yokiro from the influence of the yakuza gangsters for years. He has kept the geisha district a haven for pleasure-seekers, but like everyone in the district, he is getting older and his enemies are getting bolder. Even timeless traditions cannot carry on forever.

As you can see by the DVD box, “The Geisha” has won more awards than there are room to print. The Japanese Academy’s 1984 winner for Best Director, Best Actor, Best Cinematography and five other Academy Awards. It is, needless to say, a great film. Director Gosha Hideo (The Wolves) is one of the greats of Japanese cinema, and “The Geisha” is one of his best films. He trademarks are everywhere, like vicious fight scenes accompanied by uplifting music, or a slow burning plot that explodes in the final scenes.

There are so many scenes I loved in this film. There is a great bar scene, where a group of geisha share the establishment with a group of prostitutes. Although lower of the social scale, the prostitutes are wild and free, and can drink and dance the Charleston, while the geisha are constrained by their position. The envy mixed with disgust is palatable. I loved how “The Geisha” takes place in Koichi, on the island of Shikoku rather than the more famous Gion district in Kyoto. There was a time when no major city was without its pleasure quarters, and it is a nice reminder that Kyoto does not have a monopoly on geisha.

As always, Animeigo has done a remarkable job with a remarkable film. Their dual translation, showing cultural notes along with the dialog, is necessary for the complex relationships of the pleasure quarters, where everyone is “daddy” or “big sister” or “mamma” or “lord.”

Samurai Vendetta

4.0 out of 5 stars Two figures swept up in the tide of honorable vengeance

Samurai Vendetta

“Samurai Vendetta” (Japanese title “Hakuoki” or “The Record of Light Cherry Blossoms”) is a good film, but one with a somewhat high bar of entry. Imagine popping in a flick called “The Adventures of Little John and Will Scarlet” without having ever heard of Robin Hood. Or think of a movie called “The Woes of Wedge Antilles” and how entertaining it would be to someone who isn’t intimately familiar with “Star Wars.” Or even showing Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead to someone who has never heard of Hamlet.

Because that is basically what “Samurai Vendetta” is all about. The tale of two minor characters swept up in a famous story.

The saga of the 47 Ronin has often been called THE Japanese story. There are a multitude of filmed versions, and the story is re-made anew for every generation. You would be hard pressed to find someone in Japan who was not at least a bit familiar with the basic details. Filmmakers have long sought out fresh stories set against the back-drop of the famous. Because the story is so well-known, they don’t feel the need to give all the details of what is going on, and expect the viewers to fill in the background details with their own knowledge. Animeigo is up-front about this, and one of the first things you will see is a warning that you should watch a few versions of 47 Ronin before watching “Samurai Vendetta.”

In “Samurai Vendetta,” the two minor characters are Nakayama Yasubei (Katsu Shintaro, Zatoichi) and Tange Tenzen (Ichikawa Raizo, Shinobi No Mono). Both are samurai of considerable talent, who respect and like each other but seem to find themselves continually on opposing sides in conflicts. First, Nakayama’s sword fighting school gets into a rivalry with Tenge’s school, and both are expelled as a consequence of Tenge helping Nakayama with a loose belt before the battle. Next, the two men find themselves in love with the same woman. But these petty rivalries they could overlook due to their mutual respect. The conflict of lord verses lord is something they cannot stand aside on. Tenge stands in the service of Lord Kira, while Yasubei joins the 47 Ronin in seeking their vengeance.

The film is directed by Mori Kazuo (who would go on to direct both Katsu and Ichikawa in their respective Zatoichi and Shinobi no Mono series) and carries many of the hallmarks that would appear in his later films. Two warriors meet, become friends, until circumstances set them on opposite sides of a battle. It is a classic story, given weight by the background of the 47 Ronin story. Anyone expecting an action film will be disappointed. Like most films of this genre, the main battles are inner, as the two friends struggle with the conflicts between their emotions and their duty. For every ten minutes of swordplay there is twenty-five minutes of talking and dwelling on fate.

I personally very much enjoyed “Samurai Vendetta.” I am familiar enough with the story of the 47 Ronin that I liked seeing two of the minor characters plucked from the mass of clashing warriors, and having their story told. It puts a personal spin on two otherwise faceless warriors. But I can see how it would be dreary to someone coming to the film cold. If you want to get the most out of this, you are going to have to do your homework.

Interestingly enough, although the Katsu/Ichikawa match-up seems like a clash of the titans, “Samurai Vendetta” was made before either of those two would star in the roles that made them household words. Even though this is a color film, “Samurai Vendetta” is from 1959, with the first “Zatoichi” and “Shinobi no Mono” films appearing in 1962.

Blind Menace

5.0 out of 5 stars The Mirror-Universe Zatoichi

Blind Menace (Sub)

The blind masseur Sugino-ichi is just like the blind masseur Zato-ichi, with a subtle difference. While both roles are played by legendary actor Katsu Shintaro, when Zatoichi comes upon a woman in need, he immediately sets forth on a crusade to lift her from her plight with no thought of reward for himself. When Suginoichi comes upon a woman in need, however, he rapes her and the discards her into the street, maybe have a chuckle later when he hears how the woman killed herself, saying that it wasn’t such a big deal she needed to die over it.

“Blind Menace” (Japanese title: “Shiranui kengyo”) is the evil twin of the long-running “Zatoichi” series. The film could almost be seen as some sort of twisted parody of Zatoichi were it not for the fact that “Blind Menace” pre-dates the first “Zatoichi” film by two years. It makes you wonder what director or producer saw Katsu in this film and thought “he does that blind bit really good but maybe if the character was a kind vagrant wanderer rather than a rapist and a murderer we might have something here…”

From the opening scenes of “Blind Menace,” we see that Suginoichi was just born bad. He spends his childhood using his blindness to scam people out of money, and he doesn’t grow up any better. As a student of the Shiranui Kengyo (Kengyo being the highest official rank of blind masseur, able to work on the shogun and royal family, the descending ranks being betto”, “koto”, and “zato.”), Suginoichi would still rather get ahead by graft than by craft. He has set his sights on assuming the Kengyo’s rank and position, but would rather have it now rather than suffer through the years required to earn the position. When one of Suginoichi’s casual murders is overseen by career criminal who goes by the name “Severed Head,” an uneasy partnership is forged between the two as Suginoichi uses his massage clients to glean private secrets that Severed Head and his gang can take advantage of. Suginoichi’s greed is not contained by petty evils, however, and he plots to murder the current Kengyo, his master, something which even Severed Head balks at.

Although “Blind Menace” is going to constantly be compared to Zatoichi (and justifiably so, as Katsu clearly used the same mannerisms, facial expressions and style of movement to portray both blind characters) it does stand on its own as a dark and interesting film with a villain as its protagonist. Suginoichi is truly a despicable character, who performs some vile scams that managed to shock me more than fifty years after its release. There is one scene in particular that I don’t want to spoil, but it is a rare gem of villainy that Suginoichi concocts.

Director Mori Kazuo would go on to direct a few entries in the Zatoichi series, including the The Tale of Zatoichi Continues and Zatoichi at Large, one of the most acclaimed Zatoichi films. He does good work here in “Blind Menace,” managing to keep the tone light when Suginoichi is doing his charming best and then suddenly shift to a darker tone as Suginoichi’s true face is revealed.

“Zatoichi” fans might be a little shocked with “Blind Menace” do to the sexual violence and despicable nature of the usually loveable Katsu Shintaro. However, anyone who has seen Katsu’s other films, like the Hanzo the Razor series that Katsu produced himself, will be less shocked at seeing Katsu in this kind of role.

Animeigo has put together a solid release of “Blind Menace,” along with their usual fantastic job with the subtitles (really, the do the best Japanese subtitling in the business) along with program notes, a trailer and cast and crew biographies.

Ultimate Samurai Miyamoto Musashi

5.0 out of 5 stars Finally released in the US!!!

Ultimate Samurai Miyamoto Musashi (5pc) (Coll)

Ask an American samurai-film fan about legendary swordsman Miyamoto Musashi (The Lone Samurai: The Life of Miyamoto Musashi) on film, and they will probably think of Inagaki Hiroshi’s Samurai Trilogy staring Mifune Toshiro. Ask the same thing to a Japanese samurai-film fan, and they will most likely think of this series, the five-film series by Uchida Tomo and staring Nakamura Kinnosuke (Portrait of Hell). Both are adaptations of Yoshikawa Eiji’s famous novel Musashi, but in Japan the Uchida/Nakamura version is by far the more famous.

While I love the Mifune Toshiro, in Inagaki’s trilogy it is hard to separate the actor from the role, and it is much more “Mifune as Musashi” than Nakamura’s performance here. Over the five films, Nakamura develops the character of Musashi from the wild beast of his youth to the sage warrior who duels on Ganryu island. Nakamura was a kabuki actor who transferred over to film, and his acting style is more nuanced than Mifune’s energetic performance.

Uchida’s “Miyamoto Musashi” follows Yoshikawa’s novel faithfully, from Takezo and Matahachi’s survival at the Battle of Sekigahara, to Takezo returning alone to their home villiage and romance with Matahachi’s fiancé Otsu. After three years of study, the wild Takezo is transformed into the educated warrior Miyamoto Musashi and sets out to test himself against the great fighters of Japan. Lurking in the background is Sasaki Kojiro, who watches Musashi’s development as a sword fighter and who waits patiently for Musashi to refine his craft until the two face off at there famous duel at Ganryu Island.

This set contains all five films in Uchida’s Miyamoto Musashi

Miyamoto Musashi – The wild youth of Takezo, who would become Musashi, and his relationship with Otsu, the former fiancé of this best friend Matahatchi, and who would be the love of Musashi’s life

Duel at Hannya Hill – After devoting three years to study, Musashi’s first test of his new skills is against the swordsmen of the Yoshioka Dojo and the spearmen of Hozo’in Temple.

Birth of the Nito-ryu Style – Musashi’s next target is a duel with the famous sword master Yagyu Sekishusai, which leads to the creation of Musashi’s renowned two-sword technique.

Duel at Ichijyo-Temple – Musashi’s ongoing fued with the Yoshioka Dojo comes to a conclusion when he must face off against all seventy-three of its members.

Duel at Ganryu Island – Finally, the most famous duel in Japanese history plays out again on screen as Musashi stands against Sasaki Kojiro and his massive sword, the Drying Pole.

Animeigo has put out a beautiful collection of these five important films. (Although I have come to the conclusion that Animeigo can’t help but put out a beautiful collection, because their standards are so high!). The five films are packed in space-saving slim cases, and extras include commentary by Stuart Galbraith IV (The Emperor and the Wolf: The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune) on the first film, and program notes and trailers for all films.

Sleepy Eyes of Death: Collector’s Set, Vol. 1

Sleepy Eyes of Death: Collector’s Set, Vol. 1

5.0 out of 5 stars The Cold-eyed Killer

Ichikawa Raizo is one of the few Japanese jidai geki actors to star in two successful and long-lasting series. Katsu Shintaro was Zatoichi, and his brother Wakayama Tomisaburo was Lone Wolf and Cub, but only Ichikawa was both the earnest ninja from the Shinobi No Mono series, as well as the stone-faced nihilist known as Nemuri Kyoshiro, known in translation as “The Sleepy Eyes of Death.”

Ichikawa’s film series is actually the second attempt at creating films from Shibata Renzaburo’s 1956 “Nemuri Kyoshio” (“Sleepy Kyoshiro” in English) novels. The Toho-produced series staring Tsuruta Koji lasted only for three films from 1956-58. The novels were later “re-booted” in 1963 with actor Ichikawa Raizo, and those are the sleepy eyes we know and love.

Although the character of the “Super Samurai” appears constantly in Japanese film, Ichikawa’s Nemuri Kyoshio is cut from a distinctly different and darker cloth. Shintaro’s Zatoichi is quick to deal out death to wrong-doers, but his kindly nature and inability to wind up with the girl at the end of the movie puts him more in the league of Tora-San that in Ichikawa’s dark hero. By contrast, in the third film in this boxset, “Full Circle Killing”, Nemuri Kyoshiro cruely rapes a girl, and then spends some part of the film defending himself from her attempts to get revenge. Definitely not one of the good guys.

The series grows with each adventure, with the first few films being enjoyable but not ground-breaking, and then with the fourth film literally all hell breaking loose. Nemuri Kyoshiro’s story is revealed, being born of a Christian priest who fell from grace and raped a Japanese woman during a Black Mass to Satan, he is a man who has been cursed from birth. The effects pump up a notch in number four as well, with his “Full Circle Cut” technique suddenly drawing psychedelic tracers in the air instead of the bland circle from the first three films. Number four in this set will give you a good taste of what is to come.

Ichikawa’s death from cancer at the young age of 37 cut short the “Nemuri Kyoshiro” series, although he still managed to make twelve films, the last of which was finished with the use of a stand in. Daiei films tried to continue the series with a different actor, Matsukata Hiroki, but by then the sleepy-eyed killer had become permanently associated with Ichikawa Raizo, and no substitutes would be accepted.

The four films in this set are:

“The Chinese Jade” (“Nemuri Kyoshiro: Sappocho” or “The Murder Scroll”) – Based on actual history, the smuggler Zeniya Gohei and Lord Maeda both attempt to recruit Nemuri Kyoshiro in a desperate battle to recover a statue of Chinese jade. Inside the statue is a slip of paper showing the relationship between the Lord and the smuggler, which could spell the doom for Lord Maeda and his million-koku estate. The Kyoshiro in this first is much more of an idealist than the cold-hearted killer of the later series, and it is interesting to watch his progression. One a special note Wakayama Tomisaburo pops up here as a Chinese Shaolin monk Chen Sun who wants to pit his hand-to-hand skills against Kyoshiro’s Full Moon Cut.

“Sword of Adventure” (Nemuri Kyoshiro: Shobu” or “Match Game”) – The political theme of the series starts here, as Kyoshiro finds himself entangled with officers of the Shogun, specifically the Minister of Finance’s attempts to reform the currency system, and the Princess Taka who sees those reforms as a threat to her extravagant lifestyle. Kyoshiro befriends the old minister, which makes him a target to the Princesses plots.

“Full Circle Killing” (“Nemuri Kyoshiro: Mangetsu Kiri” or “Full-Moon Cut”) – Kyoshiro is again at odds with the Shogun, specifically his illegitimate son Katagiri Takayuki, whose mother has slowly been killing off all of the Shogun’s sons in order to assure Takayuki’s ascension. Takayuki desires Kyoshiro’s rare Musou Masamune sword, and Kyoshiro desires Takayuki’s pretty fiancé. Both men are more than willing to take what they want by force. Wakayama Tomisaburo reappears here as Chen Sun, although sporting a ridiculous pompadour for some reason.

“Sword of Seduction” (“Nemuri Kyoshiro: Joyoken” or “Seducing Sword”) – This one is the best of the boxset, when Kyoshiro comes into contact with a group of Hidden Christians who have knowledge of his birth. They beg him to protect a woman, known as the “Virgin Shima,” and who the group claims is a blood-relative of Kyoshiro. From here, the idealistic Kyoshiro of the first series is dead, and the sleepy-eyed killer mercilessly beheads Christian priests and cuts down unarmed nuns in cold blood.

Animeigo has shepherded “The Sleepy Eyes of Death” series since the days of VHS and then Laserdisc. The series appearance on DVD has been highly anticipated, and Animeigo has not let us down. All four disks are conveniently packaged in a folding box, and it is hard to believe that this much awesomeness takes up so little room on your shelf. As always, the subtitles are impeccable, with your choice of yellow or white, and a few other options such as “expanded subtitles” which offer cultural notes along with the dialog. There are also an interactive map of Japan, extensive production notes and a booklet with excerpts by Patrick Galloway who wrote Stray Dogs & Lone Wolves: The Samurai Film Handbook.

I can’t wait until the next boxset is released!

Onimasa

4.0 out of 5 stars 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.

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