Monday 7 September 2009

A Wandering Ginza Butterfly

Known primarily for her roles in the "Lady Snowblood", "Stray Cat Rock" and "Female Prisoner" series of films, Meiko Kaji has played her share of reclusive, intense and dangerous women. Stunningly beautiful, but typically with a single purpose in mind - vengeance. The two "Wandering Ginza Butterfly" films she did in the early 1970s follow a somewhat similar template: Kaji's character Nami the Red Cherry Blossom won't stand for injustice and follows through with righting it, but she does it this time with a little less violence and blood splattering. Until she really, really needs to that is.

As a fan of the lovely Ms. Kaji, I have to admit a great deal of bias up front for her presence in any film. It's particularly hard to be objective during much of Kazuhiko Yamaguchi's 1971 film, because Kaji turns on the charm and - this may surprise devotees of the previously mentioned films - she smiles. Her cheekbones get some decent screen time while she is given more room to actually act and respond somewhat naturally to the other characters. The first sequence of the film shows us a kinder and gentler Kaji as a new inmate gets tossed into a women's prison cell and immediately demands to be given preferential treatment. Nami steps in and defuses the entire situation with a simple welcoming gesture and gains the upper hand. She introduces herself as a wanderer and we gradually begin to discover her history.

The key to the film is that slow reveal of her background. We know virtually nothing about her as we pick up the main story, which begins just after Nami is released from prison while she heads back to Tokyo and, specifically, the Ginza district. Within its high end shopping and neon signs, "every single girl in Ginza has a wound from the past that they can't talk about". Her uncle runs a pool hall and it's here that we learn about her abilities not only as a pool player, but as a gambler, con-man and astute judge of people and situations. While these introductory segments spool out, you gain confidence that Yamaguchi will indeed tie everything together: Why was Nami in prison? Who is Kajime Saeko (the woman who vouched for Nami and helped her get out of prison early)? How does Shin (a slick player she meets on the train to Ginza) fit into all of this? And when exactly will yakuza boss Owada get what's coming to him?

The tension builds slowly as you know that a final showdown is on its way. It's effectively handled via all these gradual reveals as well as some of the stylistic choices by Yamaguchi. Whether he is using low or tilted angles, occasional freeze frames, tight zooms, music or simply shadows crossing Nami's face, he's able to string you along while the plot develops. Nami gets a job as a "hostess" at a club and manages to get most of what she earns to Saeko through her friend Ryu - a somewhat bumbling, but streetwise pimp. Meanwhile, Owada and his henchmen are intent on taking over the club and the seeds of retaliation are sown. Yamaguchi keeps things very lively by playing up the humour - the over the top female prison sequence at the beginning, a scene where Nami collects (without any threat of violence whatsoever) owed money from a construction boss and another where she strands a client in the tub after collecting from him (his almost childlike cries and direct look into the camera was one of several laugh out loud moments). Even little musical cues pop up in the background ("La Cucaracha", a Morricone riff, etc.).

All that to say that the film is extremely entertaining for its entire 86 minute run time. Those expecting more of the vengeful blood-splattering Kaji from "Female Prisoner" or "Lady Snowblood" may be disappointed initially, but hopefully the intriguing story and other stylistic elements will work their magic. If not, Meiko Kaji likely will.

The second Wandering Ginza Butterfly film ("Wandering Ginza: She-Cat Gambler") is less a sequel than it is simply another set of events that happen in the life of Nami. Likely it happens sometime after the conclusion to the first film, but it could just as well have taken place in an alternate universe since, other than her characteristics and her history of having learned all her card-playing, pool-cue-wielding and con-man ways from her father, Nami isn't tied at all to any of the people from the initial film. Fortunately, it retains the fun spirit and playful style of that first movie while also working its way towards a violent showdown with those who deserve their comeuppance.

The first time we see Nami, she literally wanders into the path of three thugs trying to recapture a young lady who has escaped their clutches. Though this scene sets the plot rolling, the film feels less story focused and more tailored to its individual scenes than the previous one. There's nothing wrong with that per se, but it doesn't quite build up as much tension towards any reveals or fights since it seems to just hop from scene to scene. The connections go something like this:
  • The young girl saved by Nami has a drunk for a father who sold her to those thugs in the first place because of the gambling debt he has to the local yakuza who run the local sex clubs.
  • One of those clubs has a Madam who is an old friend of Nami's (from their street days) and who tries to convince her to join the gang to help out at the gambling tables where Nami has been spending her time hoping to come across the man responsible for her father's death years ago.
  • While at one of the tables she befriends a stuttering pimp named Ryu (played by Sonny Chiba) who is trying to start up his own sex club as competition to the yakuza.
So there's less of a straight through line in the story as compared to the initial film, but everything still moves at a good pace. Another difference is that there seems to be a bit less subtlety in the film as evidenced by more slapstick humour as well as more overt statements regarding prostitution at the clubs. A prime example of the former would be the scene of Ryu's partner "Smokey" sitting on a bidet to show the ladies how to properly clean themselves. There's also the portrayal of the male and female characters - Nami is still the same mysterious yet charming fully realized character, but the rest seem to fit into two divisions: the whiny prostitute or the misogynistic gangster. "She-Cat Gambler" isn't doing anything new or different in these respects, but it does get a bit tiring to see the umpteenth woman get slapped to the ground (even Ryu slaps Nami at one point) or to continually have these men yell as a form of intimidation. Of course, that's partially the point - these are weak people who are stuck under the flashing neon signs of the Ginza district and constantly revert to the only behaviour they know.

So none of that is to be taken as a criticism of the film itself - it stays true to the form and the style of its genre. Though not quite as flashy as, say, "Black Tight Killers" or "Stray Cat Rock: Sex Hunter", director Yamaguchi uses the same techniques he successfully worked into the first film - low angles, freeze frames, appropriate music, zooms to faces, etc. - and continues to do so judiciously. Enough that it helps to ensure that the film flows into, yet again, a solid piece of entertainment.

Both films were released to DVD a few short months ago by Synapse Films. The above post was cobbled together from previous reviews of both films I wrote for the Toronto J-Film Pow-Wow.

1 comment:

Squish said...


I just wanted to let you know about the James Bond-O-Thon I'm planning for the second week of November. Until then, I'll be reviewing all Bond films in chronological order. Enjoy, and please visit from time to time to see how the Old boy is doing over at
And of course, you're invited to the November 'Thon.