Director: Kôsaku Yamashita (part 1), Norifumi Suzuki (part 2),
Tai Katô (part 3)
Screenplay: Norifumi Suzuki (parts 1-3), Tatsuo Nogami (part 2), Hisakichi Ishimoto (part 3), Motohiro Torii (part 3)
Starring: Sumiko Fuji (as Junko Fuji), Ken Takakura, Tomisaburô Wakayama, Kyôsuke Machida, Michitarô Mizushima, Kanjûrô Arashi, Kôji Tsuruta
Country: Japan
Running Time: 98 min (part 1), min (part 2), min (part 3)
Year: 1968-69
BBFC Certificate: 15

There’s often a big furore when a female-fronted action movie comes out in the US but Japan has been doing it for decades. The Red Peony Gambler or Valiant Red Peony ninkyo eiga (chivalrous Yakuza film) series, for instance, ran between 1968 and 1972 and starred Junko Fuji as a badass female Yakuza who would travel from town to town, sorting out problems as she goes, often using her short sword or pistol.

This series wasn’t even the first of its kind. Many ‘lady gambler’ films and series existed and would continue to exist in the country’s film landscape. The Red Peony Gambler films were possibly the most popular though. 8 films were made in the series in total and it’s likely only to have ended due to its star retiring from the film industry.

Eureka are celebrating the series by releasing the first three instalments together in a boxset titled The Valiant Red Peony: Red Peony Gambler I-III. Being a great lover of Japanese genre movies, it didn’t take much to convince me to pick up a copy and my thoughts follow. I’m reviewing the whole set together as the casts and narratives are so closely linked.

The first film, Red Peony Gambler (a.k.a. Hibotan bakuto or The Valiant Red Peony) sets up the titular character, otherwise known as Oryo ​​Hibotan and played by Junko Fuji (who would later change her stage name to Sumiko Fuji). We learn that her Yakuza boss father had originally wanted her to move away from the ‘family business’ but, after he’s murdered following a street mugging, Oryu finds herself thrust into that world.

Whilst her father’s Yano clan is soon disbanded, Oryu vows to become “a man” and seek out revenge and justice as a wandering Yakuza, with a goal to eventually reforming the family.

Along the way, Oryu crosses paths with Katagiri Naoji (Ken Takakura), a fellow nomadic Yakuza who grows close to the young woman but holds a dark secret.

The second film, Red Peony Gambler 2: Gambler’s Obligation (a.k.a. Hibotan bakuto: Isshuku ippan), sees Oryu continuing to move around the country, working to rebuild the Yano family, despite having resolved the mystery surrounding her father’s death.

She arrives in a village built around silk-making, where the workers are being squeezed dry by loansharks and a greedy businessman is trying to take advantage of the situation to gain control over the local industry. Oryu attempts to put things right and, once again, she grows close to a fellow wandering Yakuza, with whom she shares a kinship, namely Shûtaro Kazama (Kôji Tsuruta).

In the third film in the series, Red Peony Gambler 3: The Flower Cards Game (a.k.a. Hibotan bakuto: Hanafuda shôbu), Oryu continues her quest, this time arriving in a new village to find that someone has been claiming to be her, tarnishing her reputation in the process.

Whilst Oryu soon finds the culprit, she comes across more corruption and treachery between Yakuza gangs, centring around a Romeo and Juliet-like couple who are being used as pawns in a game of power. Oryu tries to act as a mediator between the gangs, getting herself into trouble along the way.

Meanwhile, Oryu again develops a relationship with a wandering Yakuza, once more played by Ken Takakura but this time as a different character, Shogo Hanaoka.

I was completely new to this series before now but, I must say, I was very impressed. The trio are all hard to fault, having that finely crafted quality common to most Japanese films of the era.

Ninkyo eiga tend to follow a set template very closely and these films are no different. Tom Mes, in his commentary on the third film, makes a good point as to why this isn’t necessarily a bad thing and it helps explain why I like Japanese genre films in general. With the issue of writing an interesting story that audiences will be interested in already dealt with, directors and actors can more easily inject their own personalities and stylistic flourishes into their films.

That’s not to totally dismiss the writing though. Whilst the shell of each story here is very familiar, they’re told very effectively. Each script balances quite a large cast of characters and entangled side-stories but these are kept from getting messy or confusing through well-refined storytelling that gives each character their dues. I found each film to be deeply engrossing and dramatically satisfying, even when threatening to get melodramatic.

The series reminds me of the Zatoichi films, which are also tales of a wandering gambler initially dismissed as being ‘lesser’ to the criminals but ultimately standing up for those in need with surprising skill. Like the Zatoichi series, the generic quality of the narratives never hinders your enjoyment of the films.

I also appreciated the treatment of women in the Red Peony Gambler series, particularly through the depiction of their chief protagonist. A key theme throughout the series looks at how our heroine has chosen to cast off her traditionally feminine traits to live life as a man. She has denied herself love or the ability to have a family, in particular (other than her Yakuza family). There are always characters and situations coming up in these stories that tempt her to be ‘a woman’ again but these hopes are either dashed or she decides to stay true to her Yakuza ways.

What I liked is how the traditionally feminine or maternal aspects that often break through in the character are part of her strength and often make her a more honourable and chivalrous yakuza than her male contemporaries, despite her insistence that she wants to “be a man”. Her compassion helps her sniff out injustice and stand up for those in need whilst her level-headed composure helps her deal with aggressive or tense situations more effectively than the hot-headed men. She’s not just a woman acting like a man, she’s showing that being a woman can, in many ways, make her better than most men in a traditionally masculine role.

Fuji is effective as the lead of the series too. She is incredibly beautiful but has a face that can be hard to read, the perfect trait for a gambler. The first film made her one of the youngest stars of the time in Japan and rightfully so.

My only gripe with the films came from another cast member though. After singing his praises in my recent review of Sympathy for the Underdog, I found Tomisaburô Wakayama’s character, Torakichi Kumasaka, to be rather annoying and ill-fitting. The actor, best known in the West for his starring role in the Lone Wolf and Cub series, plays Kumasaka in a highly comical manner, bumbling around with his freckled and red-nosed face, attempting to woo Oryu, who sees him more as an upstanding ‘big brother’ figure. This broadly comedic approach clashes with the otherwise quite serious tone.

Thankfully, he’s not in the films a great deal and does have some stronger dramatic moments, particularly in the third film. This was my favourite episode in general, largely due to some striking directorial flourishes by Tai Katô. He’s a director who has long been little known in the West but the tables are starting to turn, aided by Radiance Films, who have been releasing a few of his films on Blu-ray recently, as well as a book about the filmmaker, written by Tom Mes. I’m pleased to see Eureka joining in now too.

The third film is almost solely shot from low angles, a trademark of Kato. This, and the occasional breaking of the 180-degree rule, both hark back to techniques used by Yasujirō Ozu but Kato gives it his own distinct twist. He also makes great use of depth, frequently adding objects and extras in the foreground to bring scenes alive.

Reportedly, Fuji was not a fan of Kato though, complaining to the studio about him shooting long takes from a distance. Nevertheless, the director ended up making three Red Peony Gambler films in total. Koji Shundo, the producer in charge, was the actress’ father, so clearly he was not interested in caving into his daughter’s demands. He supposedly never wanted her to get into acting though, so Fuji had a measure of defiance similar to the Oryu character that made her famous.

For those wondering about how the Red Peony Gambler films sit as action movies among the rest of the violent Yakuza movies of their ilk, I’d say that whilst the films in this set often lean into their melodramatic aspects, they do have their share of pretty brutal action sequences. Some of these are very stylish too, particularly the slow-motion swordfight that introduces us to Oryu’s skills with a sword in the first film.

Overall, I enjoyed the Red Peony Gambler films in this set a great deal. Handsomely presented, telling engrossing stories of honour and taking an admirable approach to its female protagonist, it’s a series that is well worth your time and I hope Eureka release the other 5 episodes in the future.

Red Peony Gambler:

Red Peony Gambler 2: Gambler’s Obligation:

Red Peony Gambler 3: The Flower Cards Game:

Valiant Red Peony: Red Peony Gambler I-III is out on 17th June on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema series. All three films look great, with pleasing colours and minimal damage. I noticed a few light flecks here and there on the second instalment and the third film seemed a touch softer than the others but, overall, the transfers are beautiful. The audio is pleasing too.


– Limited edition O-Card slipcase featuring new artwork by Grégory Sacré (Gokaiju) [2000 copies]
– 1080p HD presentation of all three films from restorations of the original film elements supplied by Toei
– Original Japanese audio tracks (uncompressed LPCM mono)
– Optional English Subtitles
– Brand new audio commentary tracks on all three films
– Tony Rayns on Red Peony Gambler – brand new interview with critic and Asian cinema expert Tony Rayns
– Trailers
– A collector’s booklet featuring new writing by Jennifer Coates (Making Icons: Repetition and the Female Image in Japanese Cinema, 1945–1964) and Joe Hickinbottom

Chris Poggiali provides a commentary track over the first film. He talks about the cast and crew as well as other lady gambler movies. He later takes an interesting, lengthy tangent to talk about how films like this reached the US through not just grindhouse theatres but Marvel comic books! Poggiali doesn’t often focus on the Red Peony Gambler film itself, which might frustrate some, but I still found the track compelling and illuminating.

Arne Venema and Mike Leeder provide a commentary on the second film. It’s another well-researched and enjoyable track from the pair that delves into the histories of the cast and crew members, as well as that of Japan itself. I particularly enjoyed hearing stories about real-life female Yakuza and a lengthy detour into the world of gambling in Japan. I don’t know how Leeder, Venema and Frank Djeng (who tends to stick to the Hong Kong releases) find the time to appear on practically every East Asian genre disc and maintain such a high standard.

In his track on the third film, Tom Mes analyses it, discusses the work and style of its director and talks about ninkyo eiga in general. As mentioned in my review, he’s recently written a book about Tai Katô so has a great knowledge of the filmmaker and has much to say about him here.

In an interview, Tony Rayns first talks about the series in general and its tropes before also going on to talk about Tai Kato. He believes, as I do, that the third film is the best in this set and that is largely due to Kato’s influence.

The booklet consists of two essays. The first, by Joe Hickinbottom, provides a handy overview of the series, its themes and how it both fits and moves away from traditional ninkyo eiga. Jennifer Coates, in her essay, similarly opens by discussing the Yakuza movie genre, but then she moves on to talk about Junko Fuji and how her relationship with her producer father may have influenced the films. Coates then develops this further, describing how the character appealed to both progressive and nostalgic audiences before moving on to other connected subjects. It’s a detailed and intriguing piece.

So, whilst the release isn’t overflowing with extra bits and pieces, what Eureka have included on the discs and in the box are substantial and valuable, making for an excellent set. Fans of Japanese genre movies would be wise to pick it up.


Valiant Red Peony: Red Peony Gambler I-III - Eureka
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