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Shown in the Film Forum's 28-film Tatsuya Nakadai retrospective (NYC, Summer 2008) under the title "Onimasa," Hideo Gosha's 1982 gangster family epic "Kiryûin Hanako no shôgai" fully qualifies as "The Japanese Godfather." Is there any doubt that Gosha hoped to cash in on the box office and Academy Award successes of its U.S.-made predecessors, "The Godfather" (1972) and "The Godfather Part II" (1974)? For me, at least, and, I suspect, for others who are not charmed by Scorsese-style glamorized gangsters and their macho excesses and despite its two awards and nine Japanese Academy nominations, this multi-decade saga of the Kiryûin clan patriarch Masagaro (aka Onimasa), wife Uta, adopted daughter Matsue, biological daughter Hanako and Onimasa's household staff of bully boys, servants and concubines and its enemies amounts to a colossal waste of time, treasure and talent. This is not to say that Nakadai and company did not turn in highly skilled and memorable performances. They certainly did that and, in the process, reached every step on an actor's emotive ladder from extreme subtlety to massive scenery-chewing. Nevertheless, the great Nakadai's frequent full-circle mood changes were not always fully convincing, drawing attention to the actor and away from the character. (Was the director to blame for these lapses?) The dreadful music by Mitsuaki Kanno left this reviewer wondering whether or not it was intentionally ugly.
An underlying theme of "Onimasa" was its portrayal of 20th century Japanese gangsters as cartoonish reincarnations of the ancient samurai caste (the armed enforcers of feudal rule) in the era of modern capitalism. This leitmotif could have been the basis for significant socio-historical observations but the film does not pursue such lofty aims. Instead, while Gosha does not ignore Japan's tumultuous labor struggles of the 1930s, his approach is the all-too-familiar one of market-oriented filmmakers: subdued sympathy mixed with trivialization. Thus, at the behest of his Big Boss, Suda, (who is seen getting his orders from the railroad owner), Onimasa tries to intimidate the leaders of a railway strike into submission. But the forthright and courageous behavior of one of these men, Tanabe, (which includes taking a vicious beating without saying "uncle") causes Onimasa to undergo a change of heart. (The word "capitalism" actually appears in this sequence!) The gangster then risks his position by defying the Big Boss and, even more unbelievably, invites Tanabe to become his son-in-law! But it is one thing to sentimentalize a gangster and quite another to show more than a modest degree of sympathy for a "red." Subsequently, the politically-demoralized Tanabe describes himself as "too weak." To avoid interfering with their glamorization, we are not shown the sordid details of the means by which the gangsters extract their income. Even the English subtitles conspire in this effort. Inexplicably, the word "yakuza" (gangster) is rendered repeatedly as the much tamer "gambler."
For me, the only rewarding aspect of this gangster soap was its female component. Several of the women and girls in this epic not only inhabited meaty and pivotal roles but acquitted themselves admirably, with power and guts. The character of adopted daughter Matsue was an especially compelling one, both played as a girl by Nobuko Sendo and as a woman by Masako Natsume. Growing up under the unfeeling "care" of Onimasa's unloved wife, the tough-as-nails Uta (played by Shima Iwashita), the girl becomes beloved and protected by the gang of ruffians that also inhabits the house, in a relationship reminiscent of Donizetti's opera "La Fille du Regiment." Among the daily domestic chores of young Matsue is that of conveying to his concubines which one (or two) Onimasa has chosen for the night. Despite all efforts by her "family" to reduce her to servant status, Matsue insists on attending primary school and, after she secretly passes her examinations, high school. When "father" Onimasa vigorously objects that girls don't need high school, the willful Matsue prevails anyway. (There is more than a taste here of the oppression and degradation of women in male-dominated society and Gosha certainly deserves credit for making it unmistakable.) Maturing into an educated, perceptive and courageous woman, Matsue was, for me, a symbol of what this film could have been. Also powerful was Uta's death scene, in which she achingly recalls her husband's original love for her. These humane touches, however, were not sufficient to counteract the film's many repugnant qualities. It is unfortunate that Gosha's evident compassion for human suffering did not fully inform his understanding of society in general.
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