Big Time Gambling Boss [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray B - United Kingdom - Radiance Films
Review written by and copyright: Eric Cotenas (4th January 2023).
The Film

When the senior boss of the Tenryu clan suffers a stroke and becomes an invalid, his council of advisors suggest that the ideal replacement would be faithful Shinjirô Nakai (The Last True Yakuza's Kôji Tsuruta). Having started out in another clan and been taken in by the boss after being betrayed, Shinjirô respectfully demures. Advisor Senba (Goke, The Bodysnatcher from Hell's Nobuo Kaneko) then suggests the boss' son-in-law Ishido (Beautiful Girl Hunter's Hiroshi Nawa) as a nominee; however, Shinjirô asserts that the position should rightfully be offered to Tetsuo Matsuda (Shogun Assassin's Tomisaburô Wakayama) whose five year prison sentence is a direct result of settling a score with a rival gang on his boss' behalf. Senba, however, asserts that Tetsuo dishonored himself in getting caught and convinces the other advisors to vote in Ishido as acting leader until the next season when the boss' retirement can be announced at a lavish gambling party.

Tetsuo, however, has been paroled early and returned to his wife Hiroe (The Chivalrous Life's Sumiko Fuji) and son Minoru (Bakeneko's Hideto Kagawa), and his two faithful underlings Oto (Battles Without Honor and Humanity's Shin'ichirô Mikami) and Kiyoshi (Masaru Ohki) have resumed their positions under him after having been taken in by Shinjirô who hopes that Tetsuo will focus on his family when he delivers the news of Ishido's appointment. Tetsuo, however, is incensed and accuses Ishido of plotting to usurp him although the younger man stoically denies any such treachery. When members of the rival gang attack him, Tetsuo strikes back. Shinjirô, believing that Senba installed Ishido in order to pursue his goal of attaching the Tenryu gambling business to coastal drug smugglers, attempts to smooth things over with Ishido who pleads ignorance about the assault on Tetsuo. Foolhardy attempts by Oko and Kiyoshi to avenge their boss lead to a declaration of war declared between Ishido and Tetsuo that will leave many dead and shatter the deeply-held convictions of others in the honor of the Yakuza code.

It should come as no surprise that Big Time Gambling Boss has been hailed by filmmaker Paul Schrader (American Gigolo) as the "richest and most complex film of its type" as it seems to be the prototype for the archetypal Schrader "man in a room" character studies. Shinjirô defines himself by the yakuza code, so much so that he knows or believes that he is supposed to reject the call for him to succeed his mentor because of his background. Although he seems to adhere rigidly to the code and insists that others should look to the code when in doubt, he has either out of his own self-denial or a misguided belief that he is keeping things uncomplicated for those who look up to him, he has neglected to demonstrate how malleable the code really is; as such, while he goes off to meet with his bosses in attempts to smooth things over, strict adherence of the others to the code results in their deaths either by their own hands or in a futile last ditch effort to die with dignity by striking out at their enemy. "You didn't have to kill yourself," Shinjirô says upon finding his faithful wife (Flames of Blood's Hiroko Sakuramachi) and her suicide note; however, when others have proposed solutions going by the code, he has responded: "Do you think it's so simple?"

The narrative keeps the audience so focused on Tetsuo's life crumbling around him that they may not immediately perceive the erosion of everything Shinjirô believes until in the final scene he responds to a victim's invoking of the code by echoing Tetsuo's assertion that they are all just "killer thugs." The film is a tragedy all around. Unlike other, wilder yakuza films, the quick and dirty attacks are not thrilling action set-pieces and there is no visceral thrill from a brutal retribution exacted upon the mastermind behind the betrayal or his head thug. It matters nothing to him how the official account of his crimes and sentencing reads because his own prison sentence is not a waiting game like that of Testsuo but a period of monastic solitude from which he may emerge taking his own advice to Oto to forget the Yakuza code and go straight. In general, the scope photography is statically-composed but there are moments of ravishing natural beauty in the exterior sequences such as Ishido's dawn visit to the shrine where he is most vulnerable to attack not only from Tetsuo but from those wishing to stab him in the back after he shows that he does not plan to roll over and accept Senba's plans. While the extras reveal that the film was something different an unexpected as an entry in a series of "gambling house" films, even fans of Japanese cinema unfamiliar with the series may recognize something in Big Time Gambling Boss that transcends expectations of the genre set forth at the start by familiar narrative tropes of the Yakuza code, those who manipulate it, and those who tragically live and die by it.


Big Time Gambling Boss makes its English-friendly bow in the digital format via Radiance Films' dual-territory Region A/B Blu-ray. While the booklet for Radiance's other current Region B release The Working Class Go to Heaven has blurb about the sources used for the scan and grading references, Big Time Gambling Boss' booklet only specifies an HD master provided by Toei. While we are not sure how old the scan is, the 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 2.35:1 widescreen Blu-ray definitely is not a stunner; detail varies based on the camera angle and flatten in the darker areas of the film's long shot low-lit interior compositions but the pop of primaries in the art direction and wardrobe suggest that a lot of the color scheme is deliberately reserved.

The Region A Blu-ray and the Region B Blu-ray in the UK are dual-coded and completely identical in content.


The only audio option is an LPCM 1.0 Japanese track that is not whisper quiet in it silences but sufficiently conveys the post-dubbed dialogue, rare scoring, and sparse sound design – the fight scenes are rough-and-tumble affairs not balletic choreography of camera and performer – while the optional English subtitles are free of errors.


Extras are sparse but informative on a more contextual than film-specific level. In "Serial Gambling" (25:24), Chris D. – author of "Gun and Sword: An Encyclopedia of Japanese Gangster Films 1955-1980" – notes that the title of the film is more focused on the "gambling den" than the film because it was the fourth in a ten-film Toei series that usually featured Tsuruta and Wakayama who also appeared in Toei's concurrent "Gambler" series. He also discusses the significance of their setting in the interwar years and how director Kôsaku Yamashita differed from those that came before (the same year, Yamashita would also direct an entry in the other series: Lady Yakuza).

In "Ninkyo 101" (14:35), Mark Schilling – author of "The Yakuza Movie Book" – describes the origins of the yakuza, the source of its name, the hierarchical parent-child structure, and the transition from folk heroes to criminals in popular culture including films going back to the silent era before the intervention of military censorship in the thirties. Interest in the yakuza as a film subject resumed in the sixties as the studios had to compete with television, and Schilling describes the films and series from competing films studios, the early "stoic" heroes and the emphasis on the "hollowness" of the code, as well as the more absurdist experiments of Seijun Suzuki and how both straightforward entries and experimental ones became the fodder of emerging Japanese new wave filmmakers during the eighties and nineties with the AV boom as well as some of the more prestigious genre entries of those newer filmmakers like Takeshi Kitano's Sonatine.

The disc closes out with a still gallery and the film's theatrical trailer (3:07).


The disc comes housed in a case with a reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by maarko phntm, while the first pressing of 2,000 copies packaged in a full-height Scanavo packaging with removable OBI strip leaving case free of certificates and markings and includes a limited edition booklet featuring new writing on the film by author Stuart Galbraith IV, and critic Hayley Scanlon. Galbraith discusses the "stateliness" of Yamashita's film in contrast to other films in the genre, how the director's disillusionment in the emperor after World War II affected his worldview, the tension between Tsuruta and Wakayama, and the presence of yakuza on the set. Scanlon provides biographies of the major cast members.


While the extras reveal that the film was something different an unexpected as an entry in a series of "gambling house" films, even fans of Japanese cinema unfamiliar with the series may recognize something in Big Time Gambling Boss that transcends expectations of the genre set forth at the start by familiar narrative tropes of the Yakuza code, those who manipulate it, and those who tragically live and die by it.


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