« Coffee Break | Main | Motive and Chicken »

May 19, 2009

Wandering Ginza Butterfly

wandering ginza butterfly 1.jpg

Wandering Ginza Butterfly/Gincho Wataridori
Kazuhiko Yamaguchi - 1971

she-cat gambler 1.jpg

Wandering Ginza Butterfly 2: She-Cat Gambler/Gincho Nagaremono Mesuneko Bakuchi
Kazuhiko Yamaguchi - 1972
both Synapse Films Region 1 DVD

The Wandering Ginza Butterfly films introduced Meiko Kaji and her onscreen persona as Toei Studio's new female star. The shot in which she introduces herself, as her character Nami, is astonishing. For those not familiar with the conventions of the yakuza film, might I suggest this essay by Paul Schrader. In both films, Nami introduces herself to another character with the introductory stance of the yakuza. What is significant is that this stance, with one hand extended outward with the open palm, could be read as a masculine stance. While Nami is never less than feminine in appearance, always wearing a kimono in 1970s Tokyo, this introduction serves to indicate that of a professional gambler, and as a person unafraid to assert herself as necessary. Additionally, when she introduces herself to a crime boss, it is implied but not stated, that she wants nothing less than to be treated as a man.

Although these are pulp films that play in both ways, with bits of nudity or glimpses of panties thrown in, the Wandering Ginza Butterfly series, and Kaji's followup "Scorpion" series, both act as criticisms about the role of females of then contemporary Japan. While not articulated as such, the films express the conflict between a nascent feminism fighting an ingrained sense of masculine domination and entitlement. In the first films, one of the bar hostesses comments about the lack of benefits or a retirement package. Some of the concerns voiced are the same as those almost ten years previously by Mikio Naruse. The difference is that unlike Hideo Namamine, Mieko Kaji is willing to punch, slice or shoot in righting wrongs. One could almost retitle the first of the two film, "When a Woman Ascends the Stairs with a Samurai Sword".

wandering ginza butterfly 3.jpg

It may be worth pointing out that even though she was hired by Toei Studios to replace the then popular, but retiring, Junko Fuji, Paul Schrader does not mention Kaji. The character of Nami, was also known as the Red Cherry Blossom in contrast Fuji's Red Peony Ryu. More striking is that Nami has no romantic interests, acting as an independent agent. When Nami works with men, it is often with a degree of reluctance, and only when they are in battle against a common enemy. The men that Nami allies herself with also choose to work independently rather than be part of any yakuza association, and act as support for Nami rather than as equals or rivals. This would contrast with Nami's enemies, yakuza gangs which have very clear hierarchies. In the Wandering Ginza Butterfly films, even the best intentioned of men have their weaknesses exposed, while some of the women prove to be more reliable as friends. The relationship that Nami has with men is a transient partnership based on revenge against a common foe, and a fleeting, platonic friendship.

wandering ginza butterfly 2.jpg

The stories for the two films are almost interchangeable. Fresh out of prison for the murder of a yakuza boss, Nami gets a job as a bar hostess. For reasons never clearly explained, her release is hastened by the yakuza boss's widow. We only know that Nami killed the boss as an act of revenge when she was part of an all female gang. The proprietor of the bar is subjected to a potential takeover by another yakuza boss. Nami intercedes on behalf of the warm hearted proprietor, who is given the honorary name of "Mama" by the young women who work for her. The yakuza boss and his gang prove to be less honorable, even when promising to forgo a debt if Nami wins a game of billiards. Nami forms a friendship with another loner, Ryu, the man who helps get Nami her bar hostess job. In the second film, Nami seeks out the man who murdered her father, discovering him to be a former gambler who disguises his criminal activities with a respectable front. In a sequence of coincidences, Nami saves a young woman from prostitution, the young woman's father was a good friend of Nami's father, and is the one who can identify the murderer. Nami also develops an initially reluctant friendship with Ryuji, a would be entrepreneur, whose businesses spark the ire of the yakuza boss controlling the Ginza section of Tokyo. Again, attempts are made to mediate a dispute with a game, in this case the hanafuda card game. Nami and Ryuji again are forced to settle things with guns and swords.

she-cat gambler 2.jpg

The man difference between the two films is that there is a more comic tone to the second film. Sonny Chiba adds some star power as the stuttering Ryuji, more adept at martial arts than in handling cards. Otherwise, whole chunks of dialogue are lifted from the first film, markedly the words Nami uses to introduce herself, as well as her final words that close out the films. One might think of this as reworking a successful motif, such as in music when a band like The Kinks redid "You Really Got Me" as "All Day and All of the Night". What makes the films of interest, as many of the exploitation films of the time, is not the formula, but what the filmmakers would do within the restrictions of that formula.

The DVD for the first film also has commentary by Chris D. which adds to some of the context of the film and filmmakers, as well as discussion of the yakuza genre For those who haven't read his book, I recommend Outlaw Masters of the Japanese Film. Both DVDs have the same video interview with Kazuhiko Yamaguchi, a gallery of posters, and original Japanese trailers. The second film also has a brief discussion of Meiko Kaji and Japanese films of the early Seventies with J-Taro Sugisaku, co-author of a book on the genre known as Pinky Violence. While the films are more conventional in story and style than the "Female Prisoner Scorpion" that came next, they serve well to explain why Meiko Kaji became an iconic star in Japan.

she-cat gambler 3.jpg

Posted by peter at May 19, 2009 12:11 AM