Tuesday, June 12, 2012


During the trailer for Kazuhiko Yamaguchi's film, Meiko Kaji addresses herself directly to Toei Studio fans, greeting them for the first time and asking for their approval as stars sometimes did in these previews. It's hard to remind oneself that Kaji got her start elsewhere; you'd think that had she never existed, Toei would have to invent her. The studio that specialized in tough yet stylish crime movies during the 1970s seems like the natural home for Japan's greatest female crime-action star of the decade, yet Wandering Ginza Butterfly was her Toei debut. I often describe Toei as Japan's equivalent of Warner Bros. in the 1930s in the production of fast-moving, zeitgeist-grasping crime pictures, and this is a Toei production that often feels like an actual Warner Bros. movie in its mix of violence and sentimentality.

Kaji plays Nami, an ex-con who had to get tough (though not Scorpion-tough!) with her cellmates every so often but now wants a fresh start back in the hood -- the Ginza district of Tokyo. She befriends a low-level yakuza, Ryuji (Tsunehiko Watase), who specializes in recruiting "hostesses" for the Ginza's hundreds of dance halls and other places of ill repute. Ryuji dresses like a character out of Guys and Dolls most of the time, lending a kind of mythic veneer to the usual Toei grit, this time colorfully shot against the Ginza's neon skyline for added production value. But it's Nami who's going to wear the pants -- except when she chooses more traditional garb -- in this partnership. She's the one with the will to make construction workers pay their debts. No money? She'll just take your truck away. Debt collection is one of her many skills; another is pool hustling, which comes in handy later in the picture. For now, as she earns a living, she takes a strange interest in a small family: a single mother and her son. We learn gradually that the mother had appealed with the prison authorities for Nami's early release. This benevolent gesture stuns and shames Nami since, as we learn later, she'd been jailed, back when she rode with a female biker gang, for killing the woman's husband. Making a (sort of) honest living and helping provide for the dead man's family is her stab (to foreshadow a bit) at redemption.
Past and Present

Ironically, while the woman with the most cause to hate her doesn't, Nami's fellow hostesses turn their noses up at her when they learn that she's an ex-con. It seems like they won't let Nami play any hostess games, but when the local bad guy tries to muscle in on her employer, it's up to Nami to defend the place. Her weapon of choice is a pool cue in a game of three-cushion billiards against the bad guy's resident hustler, a drug addict who luridly loses his composure in mid-match, but recovers to force Nami to make a big comeback in order to win and save the brothel. A poster of Paul Newman as Fast Eddie Felson presides over the contest, but Yamaguchi is no Robert Rossen. Instead, apart from the opponent's withdrawal episode, the director films this showdown like Billiards for Morons, with voiceovers from Kaji recording such subtle insights as "I need one more point to win." At the risk of spoiling things, I'll inform you that our heroine does win, but it's not much of a spoiler since the bad guy decides that he's going to take over the brothel anyway, so there.
We've got trouble, right here in Ginza City, with a capital T that rhymes with B,
and that stands for Butterfly!

The local good-guy yakuza steps in at this point, trumping the bad guy by announcing his marriage to the madam and his protection of her business. But the bad guy yakuza still won't play fair and has the good-guy yakuza killed in the street. All right, then; that's all Nami can stands, and she can't stands no more. It's time for a different kind of game, the kind you play with swords with a kimono for a uniform and your own song for entrance music. Kaji takes a stroll through the rain like Cagney in The Public Enemy as her song plays on the soundtrack. Only in Public Enemy William Wellman left Cagney's wrath to the imagination, with some help from shots and groans of agony. At Toei we follow the avenger inside -- and it turns out that Ryuji's there already to introduce her to her victims. They practically part the curtain for the moment we've all been waiting for....
She's singing in the rain, but her lips don't move.
Nami's sword does all the talking.

But despite the last-reel effort to live up to Toei standards, Ginza Butterfly is relatively lighthearted affair, despite a mildly downbeat finish, while the sequel, in which Sonny Chiba co-stars, is more blatantly comic from the evidence of the trailer on the Synapse DVD. Maybe "lightheated" doesn't make my point as well as "corny" would. The movie isn't without a bare minimum of Seventies sleaze, but it isn't hardcore Toei by any stretch of the imagination. As a Kaji vehicle it doesn't compare to the Scorpion or Lady Snowblood movies, but the actress is quite likable in a role pitched on a more human or humane level than her most iconic parts, and on this first outing the humor isn't obnoxiously over the top. It's mild for a Toei picture, but unless you must have a bloodbath every ten minutes, not just the last ten, its overall amiable attitude may just win you over.

Here's that trailer I mentioned; dijedil uploaded it to YouTube.

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