Okay, I'm a lifelong fan of Japanese cinema and a super-big fan of both Chambara (swordfight) movies and Yakuza/Gangster films. And, these two films types are often so closely related, and so often told together it's almost impossible to separate them as a type, or style, or brand.
But, on occasion a film pops up that has a little "Yakuza", and a little "Chambara", and a lot of "what the hell am I watching hey did they just solve the central conflict with a game of billiards?"
Wandering Ginza Butterfly is just such a movie. It follows a VERY standard Yakuza movie plot, i.e. someone important released from prison for some reason and returns to the scene of the crime to exact vengeance/put the gang back together/atone for the reason they went to jail in the first place, and folds in a heap of soap-opera type story elements that leads to the inevitable Zatoichi-esque bloodbath
Wandering Ginza Butterfly appeared in 1972 right when this little mini-bloom of female oriented action movies sliced, diced, and cried their ways onto Japanese cinema. Female Demon Ohyaku, The Crimson Bat, Sister Street Fighter (also directed by Kazuhiko Yamaguchi), and Quick Draw Okatsu jumped in where Pinky Violence left off with storylines that offered really strong, sexual women with a violent tendency that put most male rivals to shame. (Except for Shintaro Katsu in the Hanzo the Razor movies, those are nuttier than chipmunk shit.)
I don't know if this tiny-trend was a ploy to draw more female moviegoers, in my experiences with these films the protagonists is always compelling be they man or woman, or if the storylines were meant to play to some Japanese feminine trait that I am oblivious to/of but at any rate, this little bloom came and went and left a smattering of really interesting film in its wake. While Crimson Bat was a complete and total redux of the Zatoichi franchise and Sister Street Fighter was pretty much The Street Fighter, Wandering Ginza Butterfly is closer to Female Demon Ohyaku than the others.
Meet Nami (Meiko Kaji) she's in prison with a whole mess of other women but while the reason for her incarcertation isn't made clear, the fact that someone has petitioned the court to reduce her sentence is. The warden tells her that as an act of repayment, she should try to get out of prison early.
One year later, true to form, Nami is out and on her way to Tokyo's Ginza district when she's accosted by another passenger on the train. As it turns out this man, Shim, is on the run from the local gang family and used his unwanted kiss with Nami as a disguise.
One of the things to learn if you are new to Yakuza cinema is that, especially in the late 1960s early 1970s films, the only smart gangster was the boss, everyone else was functionally impaired. So, where was I? Right! Shim escapes from the gangsters but gets Nami to take his card before he leaves.
Before you can say unexpected family reunions, Nami is back in her uncle's billiard hall asking about the woman who helped her out of prison. Turns out the lady is ill with something that's never disclosed, and that drives Nami into work as a Hostess at one of the better Ginza clubs, Brancho.
While Nami gets into the swing of life as a hostess and we get to meet some of the supporting characters, Ryuji (Tsuenhiko Watase) Broncho's talent scout, Madame, the owner of the club, and most importantly, Owada, leader of the Owada gang and Owada Industries (his front company).
Nami, for all her skills at pool (which comes up early in the film narrative) has even more skills in getting Broncho's customers to pony up the cash to cover their enormous tabs. I believe she gets a cut of that income too, which helps explain how she's able to send multiple hundreds of thousands of Yen to her benefactress. We get to watch her work two guys very well, one with finesse and another with force, and these encounters help round out her character.
Owada is a loan shark and general thug who has parlayed his skill as a moneylender into developing a night-club-based business that will put him at the top of the Yakuza heap. It is, in fact, Owada that Shim (from way in the beginning of the movie) was on the run from. See, Shim is a player too, and not so much by coincidence, the mentor to Ryuji, but he's been passing bad forged checks and Owada wants payback.
Eventually all of these storylines will come together, Shim will get caught, Madame will have the squeeze put on due to a loan, Nami's criminal past will be revealed as will her relationship to the sick woman she sends money to, and Owada will stand at the verge of total dominance of the Ginza nightlife until Nami steps up and… er….
Challenges them to a game of billiards, which we see, in its entirety and that leads to the inevitable double cross and murder that sets off a last-five-minutes-of-Zatoichi sized bloodbath.
The direction by Kazuhiko Yamaguchi is just about what you'd expect from a contemporary of Kinji Fukasaku, The camera doesn't do much that 's exciting, but then the story is often so straightforward and slow it doesn't really matter.
For me, the big nice scenes were the billiard game because aside from a couple of cool overhead shots (like you see on pool tournaments shown late at night on ESPN 2) he uses a few nicely set up snapshots to explain the game, and how it's played. He definitely breaks the 4th wall, but without understanding what Billiards is, the central fight of the film so far is rendered moot, and it's like 20 minutes long.
So, acting, great, script, punchy, action, limited to the last two minutes. But, and this is a big but, you stick it out the characters, especially Shim and Madame, will grow on you and take over the movie. And for me, that's worth it.
Kazuhiko Yamaguchi, for what it's worth, went on to direct some of the goofiest but most fun Sonny Chiba movies of the 1970s. I'm talking, of course, about Karate Bearfighter and Karate Bullfighter. These films came after Wandering Ginza Butterfly, but show that his technique improved with each subsequent film. Sister Street Fighter is better than Wandering Ginza Butterfly and Karate Bearfighter has Sonny Chiba fistfight a dude in a bear suit.
A stunningly, hilariously obvious bear suit and still manages to make the film enjoyable.
The Synapse DVD comes with the original language track in mono, no English dub but plenty of subtitles. The special features offer an interview with director Kazuhiko Yamaguchi in audio that plays over some fights scenes from Wandering Ginza Butterfly 2. Theatrical trailers, a text bio of star Meiko Kaji, and some stills round out the package. The DVD is presented in widescreen format and has been digitally cleaned up so the colors really pop. It's a nice treatment for a nice movie.