Saturday, February 10, 2018


For all their exotic coolness to the gaijin eye, the Red Peony Gambler series starring Junko Fuji as the heroic yakuza woman Oryu are often as corny as American B-movies. The third film in the series, directed by Tai Kato, reminds us that Oryu is a good guy in the most blatant fashion, by having her rescue a blind child from getting run over by a train, earning the tearful gratitude of the child's mother. Oryu, continuing her dual quest to become a master gambler and restore her father's clan, arrives in Nagoya, and is promptly accused of cheating people. Fortunately, she has a letter of introduction from her comedy-relief mentor (the recurring Tomasaburo Wakiyama) that persuades the local boss, Sugiyama, to trust her. In any event, once one of the accusers fails to recognize Oryu it's obvious to everyone, as it was obvious to the audience, that an impostor was at work. Melodramatically enough, the fake Oryu is the same woman whose daughter the real Oryu rescued from the train. This poor woman works as a crooked gambler, speaking of melodrama, to raise money for the surgery that will restore her child's sight. She and Oryu become embroiled in a local power play complicated by a star-crossed romance. An ambitious boss, Jinbara, hopes to push Sugiyama aside and take charge of the big charity casino night that will benefit a local Buddhist temple. To further advance himself, Jinbara wants to marry his daughter off to a local aristocrat, but the daughter's true love is Jiro, Sugiyama's son. Jiro is willing to gamble for his love's hand and wager his life, but Jinbara uses the pseudo-Oryu to win the hand and gain leverage over Sugiyama. She later redeems herself, and sacrifices herself, helping the lovers elope, while Oryu herself helps them out of town, thanks in part to the benign neglect of the inevitably benevolent interloper, this time played by guest star Ken Takakura.

Needless to say, the elopement puts further pressure on Sugiyama as Jinbara escalates his effort to take over the casino night. Oryu becomes Sugiyama's surrogate in a one-hand-settles-all contest against Jinbara's surrogate, a disfigured man Oryu recognizes as the late pseudo-Oryu's husband. Meanwhile, the Takakura character, Shogo Hanaoka, takes such an interest in the blind girl that I assumed that the film was implying that he was her real father. Good guy Shogo may be, but as a guest and vassal of Jinbara he's ordered to assassinate Sugiyama to get the old man out of the way once and for all. He goes about his mission as I suppose a good guy would, formally challenging Sugiyama to a duel. The old man accepts the challenge like the man of honor he is, telling his astonished retainers that Shogo is only fulfilling an obligation and criticizing Shogo only for not necessarily striking a mortal blow. As might be expected, the younger man and more prominent star gets the better of the contest, but doesn't kill Sugiyama outright. This allows the mortally wounded oyabun to surprise Jinbara by showing up for the ceremonial opening of the casino night, though he doesn't make it long past that. His clan is hamstrung by his dying order not to take revenge until after the casino night is officially over. Taking advantage of the fact that the casino night isn't officially over until the proceeds are delivered to the temple, Jinbara has his men steal the proceeds. While Sugiyama's men can't do much about that, there are people who are not technically his men -- Oryu, Shogo and fake-Oryu's husband, for instance, who can....

While the Red Peony series' romanticization of yakuza is always going to look lame to a Kinji Fukasaku fan, on their own terms they're dynamic, colorful B pictures of the sort the Toei studio cranked out effortlessly in the Sixties and Seventies. Junko Fuji is by no means the ultimate Japanese action heroine, but her relatively understated ass-kicking with sword and gun has a charm of its own. These films aren't great, but they are fun, and I expect to have more fun with the rest of the series.

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