Ah…. Meiko Kaji. My fellow Delirium Vault Blogger Kurtodrome’s recent wonderful review of her film, “Female Prisoner 701: Scorpion”, reminded me that I still had this one and it’s sequel lurking in my backlog of DVD’s just waiting to be watched. Why I haven’t ever gotten to it escapes me at the moment, but we can easily remedy that now can’t we?
Our synopsis reads as follows: “Nami (played by Meiko Kaji), leader of a juvenile gang, kills an executive member of a yakuza organization due to a territorial conflict and goes to a prison. Released from the prison three years later, she stays at a billiard hall and, through Ryuji, starts working as hostess in Ginza, where she instantly becomes very popular. In an attempt to take control of the bar, Owada, a local yakuza, kills Ryuji’s sworn brother. Enraged, Nami seeks bloody revenge!”
Mmmmm… Neko-chan has always liked Meiko Kaji ever since I first saw her on screen in the nifty swordplay film “Lady Snowblood”…. So cool…. so deadly, always soooo classy, sophisticated, and the just the epitome of the Japanese movie heroine of the 70’s. So it’s only fitting that I finally watch this one and give you my impressions.
Let’s get right to it then…. so “Read On”, gentle visitors!!
This one starts off in prison…. a Japanese women’s prison in 1970 to be precise, where a newcomer trying to bluff her way into being “Queen of the Cellblock” gets a rude surprise at the hands of Meiko Kaji’s character Nami…. who’s obviously in firm control already. You may think we’re headed into the Japanese “Women in Prison” genre, but no….. not this time. After this initial establishing scene we jump forward three years and Nami rides a train into Tokyo having been paroled after only three years for the brutal gang killing of a Yakuza boss, thanks to a petition of leniency presented on her behalf by Saeko, the widow of the man she killed…. Wow. I never knew the Japanese penal system was that easy on women. (Their movies certainly don’t usually display it, that’s for certain.)
She meets a handsome rogue named Shin (played by Tatsuo Umemiya) on the run from some gangsters he owes money to. He uses Nami to fool the gangsters into missing him by pretending to make out with her on the train to hide his face. It gets him slapped…. Meiko isn’t the sort of woman to be trifiled with that way, but he ends up intriging her anyway (even if she’d never admit it) and leaves her his card. Finding her way back to her uncle’s billiard hall, she is given a place to stay while she figures out how to best repay Saeko for the terrible wrong Nami did to her and her son.
Eventually, this leads her to a friend of Shin’s… Ryuji (played by Tsunehiko Watase), a low level gangster pimp making a living recruiting new hostesses for an upscale Giza bar; he owes her uncle a favor, and so he offers to help Nami secure a position at Club Bancho. She takes the job, and her tough, no nonsense, yet still very feminine style makes her a hit and soon the other girls are jealous of her success. She starts secretly funneling money to Saeko through Ryugi to help her…. seems she’s not only a struggling single mom now, but terribly ill too.
“But…. “Neko?” you ask…. “What about the gangsters? Aren’t there any gangsters? And swordfights….. maybe a gunfight or two?”….” Patience….. this one it seems, isn’t actually a standard Yakuza movie. It’s more of a crime drama, really, dealing with the life and characters that inhabit the seedy Ginza district of Tokyo, and as such, the location itself is as much a character in the film as any of the actors themselves. As such, this one has a far more meandering pace, allowing for much more of an examination of Nami as a character than is normal for these sorts of films, and Meiko certainly takes advantage of the extra attention. Always cool and calm, she gets to portray all the subtle nuances of the role, doing more sometimes with her quiet facial expressions and her eyes than many other actors can do with a whole script of dialog.
Finally there does come some action as some really nasty thugs belonging to mob boss Okada (played by Koji Nanbara) try to muscle in and take control of the Club away from the Madam running it. She’s a good woman, looking out for her girls… who gives Nami a chance despite finding out about her criminal past. Luckily, Shin returns…. and has a special hatred for Okada to whom he owes a huge sum of money and takes it upon himself to help out Nami especially if it also means ridding Ginza of his enemy once and for all.
“Now, Neko, now? Now the bonecrunching sword fighting and gunplay starts? Right?….” Ummmmm… well…. not quite yet. But it’s coming. Instead, renouncing violence for violence’s own sake, Nami decides to resurrect her once formidable skill with the pool cue to challenge the Yakuza’s best billiards man to the ultimate pool game…. winner take all. Yep, you heard me right. We get a nail biting pool game with all the sweat, nerves and intensity that the Japanese put into anything they do…. Just look at them play table tennis!! Hehehe…
She wins… naturally, but the mob tries to weasel out of their agreement until Shin shows up and turns the tables on them forcing them to finally show their true colors. They gun Shin down with a cowardly drive by on a lonely Ginza street as he gives his life to save an orphan flower girl nearly caught in the hail of bullets. It’s just too much for Nami and Ryuji who finally decide it’s time to just cut loose and wipe the Okada mob out to the last man or die trying.
The last 10 minutes are a bloody free for all as Nami wields a blade and Ryuji any gun he can lay his hands on to kill every gangster stupid enough to come into reach. It’s a fatalistic fight…. neither expects to survive, but somehow, beyond all reason, they do, and share a last moment together in a quite walk through Ginza before the police roll up and take them into custody. Roll those credits…..
So… what did I think of this one? Well…. it certainly wasn’t the yakuza movie I was expecting, and outside of Meiko Kaji, the acting wasn’t perhaps top notch, but even though it was more a melodrama than an action film, I found I wasn’t at all disappointed. As dramas go, this one plays very well and you get a real feel for the time and the spirit of 70’s Japan. The DVD itself is topnotch, presented in a gorgeous anamorphic widescreen format with good subtitles and plenty of nice extras, including a deeply revealing interview with the film’s director, Kazuhiko Yamaguchi. All in all, I give this one a firm 4 “Meows” out of 5…. it may not be my favorite Meiko Kaji film ever, but it’s certainly a good one none the less. If you like your Yakuza movies more… well…. messy, then you might be disappointed, but sometimes that’s how it goes…
Trailer, you ask? Yep…. thanks to the wonders of Youtube, your Favorite Catgirl’s got it all covered.