Big Time Gambling Boss – Blu-Ray Review

Big Time Gambling Boss is considered by many to be one of the finest films made during the classic era of the Yakuza film. The film is actually the fourth in a series of ten Bakuchi-uchi films, all released by Toei studios. As far as I can tell, these films are only thematically linked, and there is no continuous storyline connecting them. The film was directed by Kōsaku Yamashita, who is seen as one of the more underrated directors of this time period in Japan.

The film is an interesting take on the genre, because instead of the usual trajectory of a foot-soldier fighting his way to the top of the Yakuza, it starts at the top, and is about the politics at play. It begins as the head of the Yakuza suffers a stoke, and a successor needs to be appointed. The preferred person is Nakai (Koji Tsurata), but he defers to another Yakuza member, Matsuda (Tomisaburō Wakayama)—but Matsuda is currently still in prison. Ishido (Hiroshi Nana), who isn’t taken hugely seriously by many in the organization, takes the position. But as soon as Matuda is released, he wants the position.

Tomisaburō Wakayama is excellent as Matsuda, and western audiences will recognise him as Ogami Ittō from the Lone Wolf and Cub films. He is plays a slightly brutish character who will do anything he can to get to the truth and get the honour he believes he deserves in this den of scheming thieves. The middle section gets a little bogged down for my liking, but the in-fighting among the Yakuza feels really authentic. At the film’s release, Yukio Mishima hailed it as a masterpiece and wrote “[it] resembles the ancient tragedies– it breathes with human reality.” Paul Schrader is also a noted fan, and has said it’s the richest and most complex film of its type. Big Time Gambling Boss was a big influence on his and his brother Leonard’s screenplay for 1974’s The Yakuza, which starred Robert Mitchum. So, if you a fan of Yakuza films or gangster movies in general, this is one that certainly should not to be missed.

This release is slightly lighter on extras than Radiance’s other launch release of The Working Class Goes to Heaven, but the extras are by no means of any lesser quality. The highlight is an excellent video essay from Chris D., lead singer the classic L.A. punk band The Flesh Eaters, who is also one of the world’s foremost experts on Japanese Yakuza films. He provides an illuminating overview of Big Time Gambling Boss‘s place in the genre, and explains why it’s one of its very best. The critic Mark Schilling does a more general masterclass on the Yakuza film genre. Image galleries and the trailer round off the extras on the disc. The booklet contains new writing on the film by author Stuart Galbraith IV and critic Hayley Scanlon. 

★★★★

Ian Schultz

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