A review and unboxing of the handsome Limited Edition release
When an aging gang boss is met becomes critically ill and decides to pass on the torch to the next generation, senior member and protagonist Shinjirô Nakai (prolific genre stalwart Kōji Tsuruta) seems the obvious and most qualified choice to take his place: wise, slow to anger, and, despite being a career criminal, driven by a sense of honor and morality. But he declines, citing his technical ineligibility (he’s not locally born) and deferring to the seniority of his close friend Tetsuo Matsuda (Tomisaburo Wakayama of Lone Wold and Cub fame), who is finishing out a prison sentence. Eager to declare a successor, the gang instead moves forward with a lesser third candidate, Ishido (Hiroshi Nawa), who is also a trusted friend but less experienced and capable.
The ironic tragedy of Big Time Gambling Boss, written by Kazuo Kasahara (a few years before his explosive Battles Without Honor and Humanity) and directed by Kosaku “Shogun” Yamashita, is that one fateful decision, driven by honor, sets into motion a number of conflicts and tragic consequences that could’ve been avoided had our protagonist simply been a little less rigid in his conviction and accepted the mantle of leadership.
On returning from prison, Matsuda is furious that the gang’s leadership is being handed over to a junior member, causing a deep schism in the gang’s splintered factions of loyalty. Tensions build with and Nakai, his sworn blood brother, the new leader Ishido, and the nefarious Sannami (Nobuo Kaneko), a sniveling turd who deserves to die even if only for assaulting us with his stupid mustache.
Fueled by the incredible performances of a stoic Tsurata and fiery Wakayama, the 1930s-set film puts you in the gangsters’ world and gives you insight into their proceedings. Of course for all I know this stuff could be largely fictionalized, but it feels immersive and authentic as a look at the way these characters think and operate.
There’s an operatic or even Shakespearean quality to how the events escalate, as characters try to grapple with the conflict and even come to agreements, only for external pressures, accusations, and misunderstandings to keep resetting their course toward destruction.
It’s not a “fun” movie, and there’s certainly more emphasis on characters and drama than outright action, but it’s engaging and thoughtful, and in that context I really enjoyed it.
In this type of classic Japanese yakuza filmmaking you can really see the influence on, and draw a direct line to, Hong Kongese “heroic bloodshed” pictures that followed from filmmakers like John Woo. The story also reminded me more specifically of Johnnie To’s excellent Election films, which explore similar gang boss successions set in Hong Kong’s Triads.
Big Time Gambling Boss is new on Blu-ray from Radiance, a terrific UK label making their way into the US market. If this release is indicative of their output, I’m very excited to see what else they’ll be bringing us.
The initial release of the film is a limited edition of 2000 copies featuring features an obi strip (spine card), reversible cover featuring original and new artwork, and a 28-page booklet. (Additional copies beyond the first 2000 will not include these limited extras).
Special Features and Extras
The film is accompanied by a trailer, image gallery, and a pair of video essays exploring the yakuza genre.
Ninkyo 101 by Mark Schilling (14:35)
An exploration of Yakuza cinema and more specifically its ninkyo (honorable/chivalrous) subgenre.
Serial Gambling by Chris D. (25:24)
Chris traces the film to its place in Toei’s “Gamblers’ Den” series and similar films of the era, many of which featured the same stable of stars.
Theatrical Trailer (3:07)
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Except where noted, all 16:9 screen images in this review are direct captures from the disc(s) in question with no editing applied, but may have compression or resizing inherent to file formats and Medium’s image system.