The sixth generation boss of the Ona yakuza, Daisaku Ona, attempts to return to his old gang after three years in prison, only to discover that it has transformed into a corporation and that its new leader is campaigning as a candidate in the municipal election. The deposed boss finds offense at his old gang’s abandonment of tradition and, with the help of his loyal cellmate and bomb-maker Taro, sets out to take revenge against his usurper with a brilliant idea – a bomb hidden within a fountain pen! Based on Cornell Woolrich’s story “Dipped in Blood”, this tale of generational conflict and uneasy Westernization features a tour-de-force performance by its star, Yunosuke Ito, and is constructed by Kihachi Okamoto as a kind of slapstick musical merging broad comedy and black humor with an eclectic mix of musical and theatrical styles.
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Made the year following The Elegant Life of Mr. Everyman, Oh, My Bomb! is probably the least well-known of the titles collected in this proposed Eclipse set. The film is more broadly slapstick than its predecessor, but remains as socially and politically aware, addressing Japan’s cultural shifts and the decline of longstanding Japanese social structures and traditions. Gang boss Daisaku Ona is released from prison after a 3 year stretch without any celebration by his old yakuza crew. He gradually discovers that he has been ousted by his mistress’ brother, Yasaburo Yato, and that his gang has gone legit, having been transformed into the Daiheiwa Corporation. Yato is running for city council, playing the respectable public citizen in the final days of his campaign, and there is no place for the old boss in the new organization. Resentful over his ousting and other changes in his old neighbourhood empire (including a missing mistress, an unfaithful wife, an usurped home, a young heir delivering newspapers, and having to pay for movie tickets), Daisaku enlists his cellmate Taro to help him murder Yato by replacing the candidate’s much brandished fountain pen with an explosive version. Naturally, the deadly pen fails to reach its target and proceeds through various hands in Daisaku’s community. It’s probably better to say that wackiness ensues than reveal too much more of the film’s irony-laden plot.
What makes Oh, My Bomb! so fascinating is not its clever, high concept premise (an explosive pen circulating among a series of criminals and innocent locals), but rather its unique musical and theatrical syntax. Daisaku is a man out of time, embodying a traditional concept of Japaneseness that seems antiquated and passé in a new and modern culture. Accordingly, the musical cues associated with the elder yakuza and the numbers he performs emulate theatrical forms like Noh, kabuki, kyogen, and rokyoku. The majority of the world around him functions through Western musical styles, by choreographed film musical sequences, by international dance forms like the tango or the twist, and by contemporary pop music modes like jazz, kayokyoku, and eleki. Okamoto expresses the tensions between this older Japan and the new most explicitly through these musical textures and elevates a novel crime premise to a musical environment full of play and overflowing with potential. Neither era is preferred over the other. Daisaku is a likable rogue, quaint in a nostalgic sense, but still a criminal with violent impulses. Yato is an avaricious, two-faced gangster himself, lacking any sense of honour or code, but modern Japan has positive figures, like Daisaku’s hard-working and good-natured son Kenny. It is the dance between these two poles that makes the film such a winner.
Ideally, Oh, My Bomb! would be best suited to an audio commentary unpacking the bounty of musical and theatrical references contained within it, but a good set of liner notes might be an adequate substitute. Even without full explication, Okamoto’s narrative methods are still accessible and the film is probably the most cartoonishly enjoyable of those discussed in this set. Criterion only counts 4 Japanese films amongst its comedies and they’re all by Ozu, so Oh, My Bomb!‘s mugging faces and loony violence are dearly needed to the Collection.