Shinoda’s “Gonza, the Spearman” (1986)


“What a world is it in which we find ourselves!”

Shinoda’s “Gonza, the Spearman” (Yari no gonza’, 1986), based on a puppet (bunraku) play by Chikamatsu Monzemon (1653-1725), another of whose plays was the basis for Shinoda’s masterpiece, the 1969 black-and-white “Double Suicide,” won the Silver Bear award at the Berlin Film Festival. Those looking for a fight scene have a long wait (approximately two hours). Much more time is occupied by the extremely deliberate tea ceremonies. In a country becalmed by the Pax Tokugawa, samurai can rise in status and income more easily by perfect enactment of the tea ceremony than by prowess with weapons (prototypically, swords, although Gonza’s specialty is the spear (the bamboo-poled yari)).

There is a very complicated plot involving three women whose names begin with “O”s, two with the terminal consonant being a “k.” Moreover, two are approximately the same age, the other the mother of one of the other two. The mother, Osei (Shinoda’s wife and frequent star, Iwishita Shima), wants to marry her daughter, Okiku (Mizushima), to Sasano Gonza (Gô Hiromi), though she is more than a little enamored by him herself (for herself). And though he has pledged and bedded Oyuki (Tanaka Misako), the sister of Gonza’s rival. Though a skilled warrior and legendarily beautiful, Gonza “understands nothing. Not women, not this age we are living in” with no need of martial prowess (but with great concern about marital fidelity and the appearances of marital fidelity!).


Gonza is opportunistic, but not in comparison with his local samurai rival Bannojo (Hino Shôhei). It is easy to remember who Bannojo is, because practically every time he speaks he says “I Bannojo…”

Ca. 1717, Osei’s husband, Gonzo’s lord, Ichiinoshin, is off at court (like Louis XIV at Versailles, the Tokugawa shoguns liked to keep potential rebels close at hand) in Edo (Tokyo). While the cat’s away, the mice play, leading to pregnancies that cannot be explained as resulting from marital coitus and lead to many a suicide, including, in effect another double one here (albeit without a pregnancy, or, even adultery, though fleeing the appearance of adultery…)

“Gonza” does not involve showing the puppet play on which it is based, as Shindo did with the frame “Double Suicide,” but “Gonza” is very stylized and very, very slow for western audiences (as were his mid-1970s movies, Himiko, Under the Blossoming Cherry Trees, and Ballad of Orin). It is talky and visually quite static, though the color photography by Miyagawa Kazuo (Rashomon, Sansho, Ugestu) is quite beautiful. With recurrent closeups of objects, also à la Ozu (“pillow shots”). The film has a first-rate Takemitsu score (soundscaping, not only what would be generaly classified as “music”).


©2016, Stephen O. Murray



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