You often know what you’re going to get when you sit down to watch a Yakuza film. When the samurai film genre started to go out of fashion in the late ’60s and early ’70s, it was the Yakuza film that started to take up a lot of the slack for Japanese studios. While the tales of gangsters and street supremacy seemed more modern than the swordplay films of old, these pictures still featured a lot of the same themes and stories about honor and chivalry that Japanese audiences remained attracted to. While this did tend to create a multitude of generic movies that were essentially just morality plays, every once in a while you did get a picture that stood out from the crowd, such as the works of Seijun Suzuki (Branded to Kill) or Kinji Fukasaku (The Yakuza Papers).
Onimasa is a sprawling epic from director Hideo Gosha which tells the story of a Yakuza family over several decades in a very Godfather-like style. This is a film that isn’t necessarily a giant breakthrough story-wise, as it regales you with this saga of family and honor, but it does tell its story with great skill and even manages to do so from a unique perspective; that of a young orphan girl taken in by this group, who must mature with this world around here, dealing with the consequences of her adopted father being a powerful gangster. Struggling to find some measure of independence from this life, Matsue (Masako Natsume), the young girl in question, must face her struggles head on or deal with the possibility of facing the hard life of a woman involved with organized crime.
In many ways, the story of Matsue reminds me of early sequences with Michael Corleone, a character who similarly wanted his own life, without resenting the world that he grew up in. Like Michael, Matsue respects her father and what he has accomplished, and even when her dreams are not supported there is still love for him. Masako Natsume gives an amazingly compelling performance as our heroine, making it easy to sympathize with her struggle for individuality, and also admiration in her personal strength as she deals with a host of setbacks that accompany her throughout her life.
Still, even though those moments are heartbreaking, it is wonderful to see a story that is so full of love. Dreading a tale that might dwell on cruelty to orphans in a fashion similar to that of movies like Farewell My Concubine, it was surprising to see a picture that so often showed Matsue cherished by many around her. Though she is subject to the customs of the patriarchal society pictured in the movie, save for one moment she is not treated with abject cruelty, but instead treated as a valued member of the household. Though despair does creep into the movie quite often, as it does often in anyone’s life, Matsue’s heart remains optimistic and decidedly upbeat, carrying us through even the most horrible moments of her life.
Writer/director Hideo Gosha and co-writer Koji Takada weave a story that always manages to show the normalcy of this world. Onimasa is a movie that often depicts the day to day life of these people, only very rarely depicting large amounts of violence. While this may not sound as exciting as some gangster pictures, it helps to legitimize this world more, showing the honor and traditions of this family and why they would stand out amongst a world of simple thugs and cut-throats. What action that is contained in the picture is also quite stylish, a duel atop a rock cliff a shining example of how to create enormous tension within a simple sequence of violence.
It does help when one of the greatest of all Japanese actors is in your film as well. Few actors of the island nation could probably claim to be on the level of the late great Toshiro Mifune, but Tatsuya Nakadai is one of the few who probably could. The star of such classic films as Yojimbo and Ran as well as more cultist fare like The Sword of Doom or Zatoichi at the Fire Festival, Nakadai is a prolific titan of Japanese cinema, always bringing an assured strength and wild fury to his roles no matter how great or small. His portrayal of the title character Onimasa, Matsue’s adopted father and the founder and leader of his Yakuza gang, is another example of this man doing stunning work onscreen.
There’s a boyish naivety that Nakadai gives to his character, both evident in his exuberance and stubborn nature in different points in the film. His enthusiasm is infectious when he finds out from a lover that he will be having his own child, but also damning when refusing to let Matsue go to high school, fearing her intelligence will eclipse his own. His performance is so honest though, that you can’t help but feel for him in the end; a man trying desperately to hold onto what is his, even if all he has left is the children he loves.
By creating such an emotional pallet to work with, Onimasa is a film that stays with you long after it’s over, and deserves to be considered one of the finest examples of its genre. Not shown with the wonder of Goodfellas or even the grandeur of The Godfather, this film creates a sense of normalcy around this life of crime that I don’t know that I’ve ever seen depicted in such detail before. By not focusing so heavily on the criminal aspects of the story, we instead are given a movie that tries desperately to focus on family and tradition, creating a strong bond with its audience that never dissipates. With strong performances from all involved and a compelling family saga, Onimasa is a movie that deserves discovery and a high place of stature amongst the bloody tales of the Yakuza.
This is a good looking print from AnimEigo. There’s no visible degradation or artifacts and the colors have been nicely preserved. The audio quality is also quite good, and stays strong throughout the film.
Trailers – You get trailers for several movies on this disc, including this film, The Geisha, and The Wolves.
Bios & Image Gallery
Onimasa is a terrific movie, and gets a recommendation for anyone that loves Yakuza or gangster films or the work of the great actor Tatsuya Nakadai. This is a fascinating movie that goes into a ridiculous amount of detail about these people’s lives and the world they live in. The DVD itself is light on extras, but the print is good and is a fine example of the great work they do at AnimEigo.
AnimEigo presents Onimasa. Directed by: Hideo Gosha. Starring: Masako Natsume and Tatsuya Nakadai. Written by: Hideo Gosha and Koji Takada. Running time: 146 minutes. Rating: Not Rated. Released on DVD: January 12, 2010. Available at Amazon.com.
Robert Sutton feels the most at home when he's watching some movie scumbag getting blown up, punched in the face, or kung fu'd to death, especially in that order. He's a founding writer for the movies section of Insidepulse.com, featured in his weekly column R0BTRAIN's Badass Cinema as well as a frequent reviewer of DVDs and Blu-rays. Also, he's a proud Sony fanboy, loves everything Star Wars and Superman related and hopes to someday be taken seriously by his friends and family.