Director: Kôsaku Yamashita
Screenplay: Kazuo Kasahara
Starring: Kôji Tsuruta, Tomisaburô Wakayama, Hiroshi Nawa, Nobuo Kaneko, Hiroko Sakuramachi
Country: Japan
Running Time: 95 min
Year: 1968
BBFC Certificate: TBC

Recently I reviewed Married to the Mob, which new-kid-on-the-block Radiance Films were releasing in the UK on behalf of the US label Fun City Editions. For my first of Radiance’s own exclusive releases, however, I’m going to be looking at Kôsaku Yamashita’s Big Time Gambling Boss (a.k.a. Bakuchiuci: Sôchô Tobaku).

The label has a lot of interesting titles lined up but, if you’ve been following my reviews here for a while, you might have guessed the one that most caught my attention was Big Time Gambling Boss. I must admit I hadn’t heard of it before the label’s launch announcement but, being a big fan of Japanese cinema, particularly samurai movies and similar genres, Radiance had me at their “one of the all-time classics of the yakuza genre” line in the film’s press release. Reportedly Paul Schrader was a big fan too.

Needless to say, I swiftly requested a screener to review the release and my thoughts follow.

Big Time Gambling Boss is actually the fourth in a series of ten Bakuchiuci (‘gambling’ in English) films made by Toei. It sees Kôji Tsuruta play Shinjirô Nakai, an honourable, high-ranking Yakuza member who is asked to succeed his Tenryu clan boss who has fallen ill. However, Nakai refuses the position, as he explains that he was originally a member of another gang and only original Tenryu members can head the organisation. Nakai instead puts forward the rightful heir, Tetsuo Matsuda (Lone Wolf and Cub’s Tomisaburô Wakayama). However, the other clan leaders of the area, led by Senba (Nobuo Kaneko), think it should be the boss’ son-in-law Kôhei Ishido (Hiroshi Nawa), as Matsuda is currently in prison.

The vote goes in Ishido’s favour but, shortly after, Matsuda is let out on parole. Being much more hot-headed than his good friend Nakai, he’s furious when he finds out Ishido took the position of boss. Matsuda confronts Ishido, causing great unrest within the clan. Nakai desperately tries to keep the peace but this proves ever more difficult as tempers fray and the Yakuza code acts to both help and hinder his efforts.

Big Time Gambling Boss was released during the ‘ninkyo eiga’ (‘chivalry films’) wave of Yakuza films, which might seem different to those who only know the fast-paced and ultra-violent Yakuza tales that came following the release of the hugely popular Battles Without Honour and Humanity series. Big Time Gambling Boss, which is actually written by Battles…’ Kazuo Kasahara, has flashes of violence, particularly in its final act but, on the whole, this is a more subdued affair that keeps its focus on the personal conflicts between its characters.

In the earlier scenes, before Matsuda’s anger ramps up and the plot really kicks into gear, I even felt the film had something of an Ozu-does-Yakuza-movie feel to it. The camera is kept largely low and static and much of the drama surrounds quite formal conversations. Funnily enough, Ozu did direct a number of gangster movies (which I reviewed a while ago – https://blueprintreview.co.uk/2013/03/the-ozu-collection-the-gangster-films/) but this was in his earlier years before he grew into his signature style, and they seem more influenced by Hollywood gangster movies than Japanese cinema.

This Ozu-like style dissipates as more violent scenes are introduced and the narrative grows denser (though it’s fairly stripped back in comparison to the Battles… films). However, a stronger focus on characters and melodrama remains throughout, making for a rich and emotionally layered spin on the Yakuza movie.

There are no two-dimensional heroes and villains here (other than perhaps Senba, as the film moves on). Instead, everyone has reasons for their actions and enough depth to sell each dramatic beat. A couple of the actors (particularly Nobuo Kaneko with his facial ticks) play things a little on the large side, amping up the melodrama, but Japanese films often err towards the theatrical, when it comes to performances.

Also adding weight to the film is how the narrative plays on honour and the Yakuza code. These are very common themes within the genre, of course, but Big Time Gambling Boss really goes to town with the idea, showing how stubbornly following these ‘rules’ only leads to tragedy.

In terms of style, the film is impressive too. Yamashita and cinematographer Nagaki Yamagishi meticulously frame each shot, making great use of depth and perspective, as well as effectively implementing colour, light and shade.

So, overall, Big Time Gambling Boss is a thoughtful, controlled, yet emotionally powerful crime drama that’s classily presented every step of the way. A must-watch for Japanese genre movie fans like myself.

Film:

Big Time Gambling Boss is out on 2nd January on Blu-Ray, released by Radiance Films. The picture looks nice with pleasing colours and a fairly light, natural grain. It’s a touch on the soft side, perhaps, but this may be down to the original format or film stock. I’ve used screengrabs to give you an idea of what it looks like (though these have been compressed). There were no sound issues either.

Limited Edition Special Features:

– High Definition digital transfer of the film
– Uncompressed mono PCM audio
– Serial Gambling: A video essay by Chris D., author of Gun and Sword: An Encyclopedia of Japanese Gangster Films 1955-1980, on Big Time Gambling Boss’s origins in the Toei studio’s serialized yakuza movie production and what sets the film apart (2022)
– Ninkyo 101: In this video essay, Mark Schilling, author of The Yakuza Movie Book, delves into the history and impact of the classical style of yakuza film, the ninkyo eiga or “chivalry films” (2022)
– Gallery of original promotional stills
– Trailer
– Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by maarko phntm
– Limited edition booklet featuring new writing on the film by author Stuart Galbraith IV, and critic Hayley Scanlon
– Limited edition of 2000 copies, presented in full-height Scanavo packaging with removable OBI strip leaving packaging free of certificates and markings

Mark Schilling’s piece provides a wonderful whistle-stop history of the Yakuza movie, with plenty of clips and even a little background on the Yakuza themselves.

In his essay, Chris D. digs into Big Time Gambling Boss itself. He helps you appreciate why this is a notable Yakuza film among the hundreds made in Japan over the years, as well as why Yamashita is an underrated director. Discussing several of his other films, the essay made me keen to dig deeper into Yamashita’s oeuvre. Hopefully, Radiance will assist in the future.

I wasn’t provided with a copy of the booklet to comment on that, unfortunately.

So, whilst not stuffed to the rafters with extra features, what’s here is of great value and it’s gratifying enough to get such a great but underseen film released in the UK in a polished-up print. More, please!

Disc/package:

Big Time Gambling Boss - Radiance
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Editor of films and videos as well as of this site. On top of his passion for film, he also has a great love for music and his family.

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