Review: Big Time Gambling Boss (1968)

New British boutique film label Radiance has opened strong with Kosaku Yamashita’s Big Time Gambling Boss among its first releases. This 1968 Japanese film is a fascinating contrast and precursor to better known ‘70s yakuza movies from directors like Kinji Fukasaku. More than a historical curio, though, it’s a gripping crime drama in its own right — a study in flaring tempers and perceived slights spiralling out of control.

Do any digging into the history of yakuza on the silver screen and you’ll no doubt stumble across the distinction between “ninkyo eiga” [chivalry films] and “jitsuroku eiga” [actual record films]. Ninkyo eiga dominated through the 1960s, films that framed the yakuza – Japan’s organised crime families – as bound by unbreakable codes of honour and duty. The heroes of ninkyo eiga are constrained by these codes, depicted like modern day samurai, and typically find themselves pitted against less scrupulous villains, battling for the soul of their gang.

By the early 1970s this had begun to change with films like Fukasaku’s Battles Without Honor and Humanity series reimagining its yakuza protagonists less as honourable heroes in a dishonourable world and more as violent and capricious villains even when they’re the film’s leads. Because Battles drew on newspaper articles for a ripped from the headlines feel, those films became known as ‘actual record’ films or jitsuroku eiga. Big Time Gambling Boss, released in the late 1960s, therefore feels like one of the last hurrahs of the ninkyo subgenre. It’s a film Radiance pitched as the pinnacle of its era, highlighting its pedigree and the influence it had on director Paul Schrader (writer of the ‘70s Robert Mitchum vehicle The Yakuza), but it winds up feeling like much more than hollow marketing copy: it’s a reputation the film lives up to.

Koji Tsuruta and Tomisaburo Wakayama (All image credits: Toei / Radiance Films)

The Film

Taking place in 1934, the plot is set in motion by the sudden illness of a gambling operation’s ageing boss and the search for his replacement. Soft-spoken Nakai (Koji Tsuruta) is the obvious candidate, but he declines, seeing himself as an outsider having been recruited from a different gang. Nakai insists leadership should go to the hot-headed Matsuda (Tomisaburo Wakayama), whose stature puts him next in line, but he’s serving out a jail sentence for murder. Nakai is overruled and allied gang leaders install Ishido (Hiroshi Nawa).

What none of the men realise is that Ishido is seen as a malleable pawn who can be pushed into funnelling money and manpower into operations on ‘the continent’. It’s a plot that clearly takes a negative view of Japan’s imperialist expansion into China, one in which organised crime frequently went hand-in-hand with right-wing nationalism. If the film didn’t make it obvious enough, the supplementary material included with the Radiance release does: in a quote, director Yamashita discusses how the Second World War shaped his political beliefs and that he saw the Emperor as “the same as the head of the yakuza, casually sending people to their deaths”.

It’s when Matsuda is released from jail that things begin to unravel. Wakayama is probably best known to western audiences from the Lone Wolf and Cub series of samurai exploitation flicks, but here he displays far more emotive rage than he ever did as the stoic Ogami. Upon learning that he and Nakai had both been bypassed for leadership in favour of the lower-ranked Ishido, he ranges from childish petulance, to trembling anger, to explosive violence. It’s a slight he cannot ignore no matter how much Nakai, his sworn brother, insists on adhering to a yakuza code of supporting the gang and abiding by the decision of their elders.

It’s this slight that is the foundation for the rest of the film: Matsuda unable to let it go, Nakai unable to separate himself from his sense of duty to the gang, Ishido unable to ignore Matsuda’s provocations and refusal to acknowledge him as the new boss. Everything escalates through misunderstandings, to violence, to tragedy — all while the scheme to rob the gang blind plays out in the background, unbeknownst to all three.

Nakai’s decision-making might seem opaque – from his first refusal of power, to his insistence on Matsuda’s being owed the reins despite the latter’s temper clearly making him an unsuitable leader, to his aboutface into accepting and defending Ishido. All of it is driven by ideas of chivalry and honour, turning him into a truly romanticised ideal of the yakuza, a far cry from the self-interested gangsters of Fukasaku’s films or American mafia movies like Goodfellas. The ultimate tragedy of Big Time Gambling Boss is that Nakai is so bound by his sense of duty that he’s unable to see what’s really happening – to understand the way his gang, as close to him as his family, is being manipulated into an extension of a right-wing, fascist and imperialist power – until it’s too late.

The Release

Radiance Films is a new label from former Arrow Video veteran Francesco Simeoni. It’s fitting for me that Big Time Gambling Boss is among their debut releases: it was the Arrow boxset of Battles Without Honor and Humanity that introduced me to both classic Japanese crime cinema and the world of boutique film distributors digging up obscure films and packaging them with extras, interviews, and essays.

This release lives up to that precedent, featuring a high-definition transfer from Toei that is gorgeous to look at – particularly when it’s capturing the warm hues of a lantern in the restaurant where so much interpersonal drama unfolds, or the multicoloured kimonos of Nakai and Matsuda’s wives. The extras include video essays on the yakuza and ninkyo eiga genres, but the best material might be in the accompanying booklet, drawing heavily on interviews and writing from Yamashita and others to paint a raucous picture of filming in the ‘60s through the ‘80s on sets frequented by both fractious actors and actual gangsters.

[Editor’s Note: This review was intended to run back in January, before the Limited Edition sold out. The site originally commissioning the review ultimately declined to host it and now the LE is unavailable. A Standard Edition is forthcoming, sadly without the booklet described here, but it bodes well for the quality of future Radiance releases]

The Takeaway

There’s no avoiding that Big Time Gambling Boss is a relatively unknown film in a genre niche, one whose tropes might puzzle newcomers – everything from the code-driven reasoning of Nakai to the significance of a broken sake cup. Of course, many viewers will be enthusiasts already, drawn in by the film’s place in Japanese cinema or perhaps the connection to Arrow Video and other yakuza releases. But while it might be essential viewing for those fans even without a recommendation, it shouldn’t be on anyone’s skip list: it’s a riveting historical crime drama founded on some stellar performances and well worth exploring.

Big Time Gambling Boss
Director: Kosaku Yamashita
Cast: Koji Tsuruta, Tomisaburo Wakayama
Language: Japanese (with English subtitles)
Duration: 95 min
Format: Blu-Ray Limited Edition
Release Date: 02/01/2023

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