Gonza the Spearman (1986) review


Masahiro Shinoda, a central figure in Shōchiku’s New Wave movement, is known for trying his hand at a variety of genres, like the yakuza film with Pale Flower (1964)), jidai-geki with Assassination (1964)) and the fantasy genre with Himiko (1974). He also known for exploring how Japanese theatrical traditions can enhance the aesthetics of film, as is evident in his Double Suicide (1969). Another one of his well-known narratives is Gonza the Spearman (1986), a film based on a play by Monzaemon Chikamatsu who managed to win the Silver Bear for outstanding artistic contribution at the 36th Berlin International Film Festival.  


One day, Gonza Sasami (Hiromi Go) is approached by Oyuki (Misako Tanaka) and her nanny (Haruko Kato). Oyaki desires to know why her wish to marry him remains unfulfilled. Gonza responds to get the approval of her brother, Bannojo Kawazura (Shohei Hino), they need a proper go-between.

Ever since her husband Ichinoshin Asaka, retainer and tea master of the daimyo, has been called to Edo, Lady Osai (Shima Iwashita) has spent her time with at home her children (General-note 1). Torajiro’s uncle Jinbei (Choichiro Kawarazaki), who laments the fact that samurai have turned soft, filling their days by playing music or serving tea, hopes that her son, Torajiro, becomes a good swordsman, yet Osai desires that he, just like his father, masters the way of tea.  

Not much later, a heir is born to the Daimyo in Edo and celebrations are planned in the home domain. As Ichinoshin is absent, Iwaki (Hideji Otaki) approaches Gonza and Bannojo to offer one of them the lead over the tea ceremony. As he finds himself not able to decide solely by himself, he informs them that his daughter Osai will help him decide.  

Gonza the Spearman (1986) by Masahiro Shinoda

Gonzo the Spearman is, in short, a narrative that explores the fate of phallic desire within the samurai class whose original function was radically problematized by the peace that persisted under Tokugawa. This peaceful time was not only a time where samurai were tasked to sublimate their ‘sexual’ energy in the arts – either the art of music, the art of tea, or both – or in games like gambling, but also a period where samurai were easily swayed to pursue their phallic desire (i.e. a search to feel worthy as samurai and as man) and satisfy their libido in (often illicit) sexual relationships with women.

The phallic nature of Shinoda’s narrative is unquestionably emphasized by its title: Yari no Gonza. The spear or yari is not merely the weapon he is skilled in – a skill he can only show off during practice in the dojo – but also the symbol of his phallic desire. Yet, it would be wrong to think Gonza’s phallic desire in merely sexual. Even though he engages in sexual acts to temporarily satisfy his phallic desire, this desire also fuels his ‘non-sexual’ ambition to rise in the feudal hierarchical structure. Gonza the Spearman is thus not simply a tragedy of phallic desire, but a tragedy of a man who accidently orchestrates his own downfall by pursuing his phallic ambition within a strict feudal hierarchy.  

Gonza the Spearman (1986) by Masahiro Shinoda

An important moment in the opening stages of the narrative that allows us to gain an insight in Gonza’s phallic dynamic is when Oyuki gives an Obi to Gonza, a sash with both family crests embroidered on it that does not only signal her burning desire to marry him but also function as an attempt to pressure him to act and realize the marital union. How can we accord his passiveness towards her marital wish and his readiness to accept her invite to engage in a fleeting moment of intercourse? We can only understand this ‘contrast’ if we view his passivity as both a sign of his desire to satisfy his phallic fantasy (‘I have what you desire’) with beautiful courtesans and Oyuki’s frustrated desire as well as of his unwillingness to call a halt to his phallic ambition (Narra-note 1).

Gonza’s position is further problematized by Lady Osai’s desire and her desirability. Osai desires, as becomes clear, the young and handsome Gonza (Psycho-note 1). It is this desire that underpins her refusal of Bannojo’s repeated romantic approaches as well as her wish to offer the hand of her daughter Okiku (Kaori Mizushima) to him. Osai smartly exploits his phallic ambition by offering the secret knowledge he so desperately needs about a certain special tea ceremony tradition (the True Tea Shelf) in exchange for his promise to marry Okiku (Psycho-note 2).   

Yet, her cunning strategy is not simply a way to realize her ‘impossible’ desire through her daughter, but also an attempt to organize a way to get closer to her ‘beloved’. Yet, even though Gonza does not let himself be seduced by her charm, Bannojo succeeds in exploiting their nighttime meeting – a meeting to initiate him into the secrets of the True Tea Shelf – to frame him as an adulterer.

Gonza the Spearman (1986) by Masahiro Shinoda

It is thus via Bannojo that Gonza becomes a victim of Osai’s desirability. His presence in the garden was function of his phallic desire, to obtain his object-to-enjoy, Osai, and the secrets she holds. Why does he desire her? He desires her because she allows the most radical satisfaction of his phallic desire. By ensnaring Osai’s desire, Bannojo cannot only indulge in the fantasy that Ichinoshin is phallic incompetent, but also revel in the imaginary pleasure of being more desirable than his master and having what he lacks.

The ease by which Bannojo frames Gonza reveals the importance of the image within the samurai caste – the main function of the rules of conduct and the system of honour is to safeguard the image associated with the subject’s position – as well as the radical dangers such reliance on the image brings with it. If a shadow is successfully casted on a subject’s image, the hierarchical system of honour demands that that the ‘perpetrator’ is purged by the victim from the societal structure. It is, as a matter of fact, only by violently erasing the ‘perpetrator’ that the ‘victim’ can protect his own societal image.    

Shinoda truly showcases his artistic sense with his composition of Gonza The Spearman. Yet, he does not, like many other directors, simply exploit the geometrical dimension integral to the medieval interiors and exteriors. Shinoda has, in fact, taken the time to unearth the very visual poetry of meeting geometrical contrasts (e.g. the symmetry of buildings versus the (often artificial) organism of nature, the aesthetic beauty of frame within frame, the refined beauty of simple interior symmetry, … etc.). This compositional thoughtfulness also allows Shinoda to evoke the peacefulness of shado (the tea ceremony) and elegantly underline the artful beauty of its ritualistic proceedings.

Gonza the Spearman (1986) by Masahiro Shinoda


Moreover, Shinoda distinguishes himself by his reliance on movement – be it camera movement or on-screen movement (e.g. characters) – and his graceful use of natural colour-contrasts to craft shot-compositions that are aesthetically refined and visually pleasing. The combination of Shinoda’s compositional thoughtfulness and his dynamic use of movement also instrumental in giving the more action-oriented sequences their elegance and their rightful quantum of tension.

The aesthetic pleasure of Gonza The Spearman is also enhanced by Toru Takemitsu’s musical accompaniment – music that succeeds to combine a certain seductiveness, mysteriousness and darkness. While music is only sparsely used, its use is thoughtful and plays an instrumental role in giving the finale its harrowing flavour and turns it into a truly satisfying experience.

Gonza The Spearman is a fabulous narrative that offers a satisfying exploration of the tragedy of phallic ambition and the destructive potential of desire. Shinoda delivers Gonza’s tragedy with a poetic sensibility that does not only visually please the spectator, but also succeeds in emotionally engaging him in the fate that befalls him.


General-note 1: The reason why Ichinoshin is absent from his domain is due tothe Sankin Kotai, a rule the Tokugawa shogunate implemented to bolster their power over the daimyo. This rule required daimyo to alternate living for one year at ‘home’ in their domain and in Edo, the capital, close to the shogun.

Narra-note 1: Some spectators might argue that Gonza’s rivalry with Bannojo stops him from pursuing his marriage with Oyuki, but in our view this rivalry is merely a welcome excuse to hide his own unwillingness to commit. This is underlined by the fact that his passiveness existed even before their rivalry is intensified and by the fact that, despite knowing how to approach her brother, he does nothing.   

Psycho-note 1: Lady Osai’s desire is also phallic in nature. Is it not the case that Osai, by possessing a handsome young man, can satisfy her desire to feel desired, to please her fantasy of being the phallus that the male other misses?

Psycho-note 2: Gonza’s phallic opportunism is beautifully illustrated by his unconscious mistake of donning the sash Oyuki gave him to meet Okiku’s mother. The sight of this sash does not only confirm Oyuki’s nanny’s statement of Gonza’s vow to Oyuki, but also reveals the genuine nature of her request to act as their go-between.      


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