There are many things wrong with Onimasa, and it pains me to no end to say that one of the very worst is Tatsuya Nakadai. Here is one of the finest actors that Japan ever produced, under the direction of the very capable Hideo Gosha, and there is barely a scene in this tiresome film where Nakadai comes off as anything but a scenery-chewing, cotton-in-the-jowls ham. It takes a special kind of miscalculation to reduce the most piercing pair of eyes in all of Japanese cinema to something that looks like a photo from an ophthalmology textbook.
I linger on Nakadai because he serves as an emblem of so much of what is wrong with this film: poor choices. He’s miscast, brutally so, as the pre-WWII Kyoto underworld boss Onimasa. Nakadai is best at playing haunted and tormented souls—the tempest-tossed lord in Ran, the homicidal anti-hero of Sword of Doom. He’s also skilled at giving us men who are beaten on the outside but still spirited on the inside, like Genta from Kill! or Komatsu from When A Woman Ascends the Stairs. But he’s hopelessly ill-suited to the role of a powerful gangster boss; his strutting and sneering and rolling of his Rs seem better suited to a TV comedy sketch than a two-and-a-half-hour crime family saga. Watching his performance in this movie is like seeing a bystander end up wedged between two colliding cars. He just plain doesn’t belong here, and no amount of trying to shoehorn him into the role works.
Nakadai’s miscasting only aggravates the movie’s other problem, its overblown storytelling. The film opens with Onimasa accepting payment for a debt owed to him by taking one of a family’s daughters. The girl, Matsue (Masako Natsume) resents being stolen away and rebels in what quiet ways she can—like actually going to school and studying. Onimasa, clearly not a product of the modern age, thinks that’s a waste of time. Eventually Onimasa has a child of his own via one of his mistresses and Matsue goes on to become a schoolteacher; her brains and literacy become useful when Dad sends her to build a liaison with an imprisoned labor leader who makes the mistake of falling in love with her. Then comes the latter arc of the film where father and daughter, both bruised by life, attempt reconciliation and even find a good deal of it—but only after a lot of our interest in the story has been smothered.
The movie’s inconsistency is maddening. A great scene will be followed up with a complete clinker without warning. Or, even worse, a terrible scene will have a couple of brilliant moments in it that are quickly plowed under by the movie’s lugubrious direction. I felt the same way about Gosha’s The Geishas as well: the few ideas worth exploring in the film were shoved under in favor of aimless, elongated set-pieces. That film sports a scene where a rival geisha and prostitute stare each other down in a nightclub, then retreat into the restroom for a full-blown battle royale des femmes. Wigs torn off. Plumbing fixtures ripped out of the walls. Girls rolling around on a wet floor yanking each other’s hair. It’s like something out of a John Waters movie, or maybe one of those tacky direct-to-video fetish items Japan is not proud of having a market for.
There are moments in this film that work, but they remain moments, not parts of a whole. The scene where Onimasa finds his mistress is pregnant, for instance. Or a moment where Onimasa flings himself onto a table with one firm snap of his whole body, the better to harangue someone face-to-face. Or a striking montage where we learn in fleeting images how Onimasa fell in love with his wife. Or the occasional—very occasional—moment when Nakadai’s haunted face is used to proper effect. But too much of the movie just consists of the same emotional beats repeated with thundering monotony. Things don’t so much progress as they’re just reiterated, and by the hour and a half mark we’re stupefied that there’s still an hour left of anywhere to go. There is, but it’s all downhill. Ironically, the latter scenes of Onimasa in decline use Nakadai to much better effect—but, again, it’s too late for it to be of much help.
The current English subtitle for the movie is A Japanese Godfather, and despite that probably being a marketing term more than anything else it hints at what might have gone wrong. Maybe Gosha saw Coppola’s gangster sagas and felt like he could bring some of the same elliptical dramatic construction and wide-gauge storytelling to Japan. But the pieces don’t flow into each other, and the movie’s so busy trying to be Epic that it forgets to be much of anything else.
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