Meiko Kaji stars in the first of two features released by Synapse today from director Kazuhiko Yamaguchi. (Billiard) Balls at the ready.
Meiko Kaji is Nami Higuchi, recently released from serving a three-year prison stint for the murder of a yakuza boss. When she learns that she received early release on account of a petition from the deceased’s wife Saeko, she decides to head back home to Tokyo where she visits her uncle who runs a billiard-hall she used to frequently hustle. But she soon finds out that Saeko is now sick and struggling to raise a young boy. Racked with guilt, Nami decides to try and find work so that she may repay her kindness somehow. It’s not long after being back in town that she befriends Ryuji (Tsunehiko Watase), a gangster pimp doing what he can to recruit new hostesses; he in turn does her uncle a favour and offers Nami a position at the old club.
Sure enough Okada (Koji Nanbara) muscles in on the scene and he wants the club for himself. However, Nami isn’t about to budge, doing everything in her power to secure Saeko’s future. Into her life walks Shin (Tatsuo Umemiya), whom Nami had met briefly on the train home. Shin has managed to get into debt with Okada and takes it upon himself to help out Nami if it means ridding Ginza of his nemesis. Twists and turns ensue as Nami becomes deeper embroiled in a seedy underworld of pimps and gamblers.
Meiko Kaji’s first film for Toei, having left Nikkatsu at the turn of the Roman Porno era, 1972’s Wandering Ginza Butterfly [Gincho Wataridori] was something of an attempt by the studio to carry on the tradition of the female yakuza sub-genre, evoking the style of the Red Peony Gambler series which had starred Junko Fuji, who subsequently retired from acting the same year to pursue marriage. Directed by Kazuhiko Yamaguchi of Blossoming Night Dreams and Sister Street Fighter fame, the film echoes the sentiments of many well established yakuza flicks, not to mention offer a somewhat parodying take on the stock archetypes strewn throughout. While most of the characters are entirely predictable, from Tatsuo Umemiya’s common cheating do-gooder to Koji Nanbara’s evil mob boss, Yamaguchi’s film does take some pains to be a little different; mostly with its inclusion of billiards as a central plot device, eschewing the familiar sex and violence routines of its kind – at least until an abrupt and frenzied bloodbath of a finale – to deliver a behind-the-scenes and detailed enough gander at the various kinds of scams our good guy Ryuji warns our heroine about. Likewise the authentic setting conveys a strong sense of ambience within the city; the hand-held camera style in particular providing a fly on the wall experience during the night time exteriors.
Meiko Kaji’s inclusion in the film is interesting from the viewpoint that post Wandering Ginza Butterfly and its sequel’s success she went on to do a couple of less talkative features for Toei, though no less notable. Nami is every bit as calculated as the likes of Sasori and Yuki, yet here Kaji is given a chance to show a side of her that wasn’t greatly exploited throughout her career – her good sense of humour and engaging sass. The Ginza environment is her ultimate playground and she’s afforded plenty of opportunities to demonstrate her range as a performer, which holds our attention, even during the sequences where she might not otherwise convince as an ace billiards shark nearly as much as she does a swordsman. Yamaguchi does his best to create as much tension as possible during the latter ten minute billiards showdown, carried by some creative editing which offers a brief explanation of game rules. And indeed the director does seem to have one or two tricks of his own up his sleeve, none more unique than the way he depicts Ryu The Third Eye’s drug withdrawal symptoms through a stark yellow hue as the duel reaches its otherwise predictable climax.
There’s little faulting Synapse’s progressive 2.35:1 anamorphic presentation. Stated as being derived from Toei’s original vault elements and remastered in high-definition, the image looks every bit as good as it would have back in the day. Print damage is next to non-existent, leaving a clean and stable transfer, free from compression artefacts and exhibiting natural levels of film grain and accurate colour balance. Contrast is nice and black levels are rich, with strong shadow detail. Overall detail is fine, with just a hint of softness in wider shots, which doesn’t look like it can be helped a great deal, along with a spot of shimmering. There is however high frequency haloing.
The original Japanese mono track is also as good as can be expected; no audio drop outs or hissing, it offers a strong level of clarity throughout. Accompanying it are removable English subtitles which offer a good translation and are free from grammatical error.
Chris. D’s audio commentary certainly offers a wealth of information, even if he does cover some of the same ground from previous commentaries concerning these genre films. He talks plenty about the lead and supporting cast members, as well as the director himself, while detailing certain elements of yakuza movie making and the typical formula employed by them. He does start to slow down by the half way mark as he struggles to sustain the whole run time; there are plenty of lengthy pauses and he does end up repeating himself several times.
At 37 minutes, an interview with writer/director Kazuhiko Yamaguchi proves to be a little more interesting. Yamaguchi perfectly recollects his time spent making movies for Toei, from getting an early start behind the scenes on 1959’s Prince of Space to his first major gig as a director ten years later with Delinquent Girl Boss: Blossoming Night Dreams. He talks of actress Reiko Oshida and her somewhat difficult nature in terms of following dialogue, next to that of Meiko Kaji’s professionalism. He speaks fondly still of Oshida, and also holds Kaji in high esteem, evidently proud of helping her to become a major star. He goes on to mention other directors influencing his films, particularly Sergio Leone, and moves on to working with several of the same actors throughout his career. As this feature also covers his time spent on She-Cat Gambler, the director also talks about working with Sonny Chiba, revealing a few nice snippets of trivia, as well as reminiscing over his latter Sister Street Fighter flicks.
Two theatrical trailers (one for the film’s sequel) and a poster gallery featuring original posters from Meiko Kaji’s films precede a lengthy and informative biography on Meiko Kaji, featuring interview excerpts, written by Chris. D.
Wandering Ginza Butterfly is another solid Meiko Kaji vehicle. Though largely formulaic the storyline does enjoy some neat developments, the supporting cast are on top form and Kazuhiko Yamaguchi provides a suitably neon-lit backdrop as his protagonist’s stomping ground.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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