146 minutes Rating:
Crime Drama/Period PieceReview By:
Anthony CaraSeptember 3, 2010
- When given the chance to review AnimEigo’s release of Onimasa- A Japanese Godfather, I took it as an offer I couldn’t refuse. Now then, having made the awful yet obligatory Godfather reference, I can safely move on to the review.
Directed by Hideo Gosha, Onimasa tells the story of the Kiryűin Yakuza clan from the early turn of the century and on to the World War 2 era. Rather than using the all too common Citizen Kane style arc of displaying a man’s rise to power and fall from grace, Onimasa (for better or worse) centers more around those whose lives this dominant yakuza effects. In this way, the film offers variety and insight, but at the same time lacks balance and focus. The film begins and ends with Onimasa’s adopted daughter, Matsue and her narration is spaced throughout the film. She tends to act as a focal point throughout the film, but there are various moments where the story leaves her entirely and becomes more about her yakuza father.
Since the film’s American title compares itself to what some regard as one of the greatest movies of all time, it created a certain sense of expectation as I popped the DVD into my player and prepared for an unforgettable film experience. The opening was something of a letdown and actually scared me ever so slightly. The dramatic opening of Matsue coming upon the corpse of her baby sister Hanako (the catalyst for her to retell her story) was all well and good, but the introduction to the character of Onimasa and the Miami Vice-inspired opening theme song reeked of 1980’s cheesey-action-film goodness. Every character in this criminal world was so “cool” that it actually became quite farcical and over-the-top. The vulgar and exaggerated intonations of the female criminals reminded me of the contemporary comedy Shimotsuma Monogatari (Kamikaze Girls in the USA) except this was intended to be serious.
However (and this particular however is rather ambitious as it sets out to nearly undo the previously critical paragraph) once the rough edges of these criminals are smoothed out, this somewhat obscure film gem is allowed to sparkle. As the film sympathetically traces the tragic life of young Matsue and her rise to womanhood and simultaneously chronicles Onimasa’s decline from power, it portrays characters in a rather touching and sweet fashion, despite their moments of weakness and numerous shortcomings. The film is very character-oriented, and while it excels in developing the crime lord and his older daughter, it fails in realizing numerous other elements that it haphazardly introduced.
The film’s scope may have been slightly too ambitious and even with a two and a half hour run time, it feels like it left out quite a few things. At times characters, or plot elements are introduced, only to never be mentioned again. The most glaring examples that come to mind are Onimasa’s resolution to “go straight” with the crime family and the only twice mentioned laborer’s struggle. Both of these elements are brought up as if they will be major events in the story, but are quickly swept under a rug and ignored as the film progresses. In addition to these plot elements, there are also a few characters that seem quite ineffectual and never fully realized. Onimasa’s wife Uta, with her clinically dangerous drinking problem and overall poor attitude is such a thoroughly intriguing character- obviously bothered by her husband’s taking of mistresses. She is given little to no back story and her motivations remain unclear until one small vignette reveals a pleasing past and a beautiful insight to the life she once had. Of all the side characters, she sees much greater development then most others. The character of Hanako’s prostitute mother offered the chance for an intriguing triangle complete with fierce embittered drama between daughter and adopted daughter, mother and mistress, but once again, this is not fully realized. The character actually disappears from the film in an instant without as much as a word of her fate.
For its shortcomings, the film is still a great one worth checking out. Fans of Japanese movies and particularly the Yakuza genre will naturally enjoy this very “cool” piece of work. When viewed as a serious piece of film, it seems to teeter precariously on the border of respectable art (evident by the two palms on the DVD box) and popular cinema. Kurosawa’s films regularly did this to great success, but Gosha’s work seems to fall slightly short in both regards.
As a DVD release, AnimEigo’s product once again exceeds expectations with a buffet of worthwhile features. The film comes with program notes that explain various aspects of Japanese culture and allow for greater incite and enjoyment of the film. There are also cast and crew biographies, trailers for Onimasa as well as other Gosha films, and an image gallery. If this wasn’t enough, you are also allowed to choose the color of your subtitles, when they appear (dialogue, captions or both). Finally, you are given the choice to listen to the original, hiss filled sound track, or the digitally re-mastered and restored audio.6.5/
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