Color, 1968, 94 mins. 39 secs.
Directed by Kôsaku Yamashita
Starring Kôji Tsuruta, Tomisaburô Wakayama, Hiroshi Nawa, Nobuo Kaneko
Radiance Films (Blu-ray) (US/UK RA/B HD) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9)

Before it Big Time Gambling Bosstook a more extreme and violent turn in the 1970s thanks to Big Time Gambling Bossfilmmakers like Kenji Fukasaku, Japanese yakuza cinema was already hot business (at least locally) with the big studios turning out sagas involving generational conflict, vendettas, and tragic crime lord melodramas that didn't necessarily encourage viewers to emulate that lifestyle. One of the most esteemed of the 1960s wave is Big Time Gambling Boss whose original title, Bakuchiuci: Sôchô Tobaku, places it among a string of ten Toei gambling den crime films with some variation of "Bakuchiuci" in the title. The line started in 1967 and included other titles like Bakuchi-uchi Gambling House, but this one tends to pop up on best-of lists more often thanks to the famous endorsements of Paul Schrader and Yukio Mishima. More focused on power dynamics and the dangers of moral corruption than dramatic bloodshed, it's an assured and potent piece of work that packs a great deal of depth into an hour and a half.

In mid-1930s Tokyo, the gambling underworld is upended when the head of the Tenryu clan, lying on his deathbed, names member Nakai (Tsuruta) to take over in his place. Feeling he's unworthy since he wasn't an original members, Nakai initially declines and suggests his imprisoned blood brother, Matsuda (Lone Wolf and Cub's Wakayama), as leader. Unscrupulous advisor Senda (Kaneko) violates protocol by appointing another instead, which leads to major complications when Big Time Gambling BossMatsuda gets out of jail. Meanwhile Nakai, who's simmering over the turn of events, tries to maintain a steady home life but finds his principles being quickly eroded. Meanwhile the old guard's endorsement of Nakai and the Big Time Gambling Bossencroaching maneuvers of a rival clan mean it's only a matter of time before death strikes again.

The lynchpin of this film is certainly the lead performance by Tsuruta, a nuanced and compelling actor who knows exactly how much to convey in front of a camera as he charts his character's moral and psychological erosion over the course of the story. The direction by Kôsaku Yamashita (who directed a slew of yakuza films over the next decade) is restrained and rarely employs close-ups, using wide painterfly compositions to show the shifts in power between the characters arranged in formal tableaux. That doesn't mean he skimps on kinetic touches when required, including a bit of violence here and there (especially the climax) without splashy bloodletting. It's a very solid introduction to this classical wave of yakuza films and hopefully a sign of more to come in the future given how many have still never screened in English-friendly editions.

Big Time Gambling BossThough given several repertory screenings over the years and not terribly hard to find on the gray market, Big Time Gambling Boss will likely be a first-time watch for many thanks to the Radiance Films Blu-ray (a global premiere) Big Time Gambling Bosswhich comes in a 2,000-unit limited edition featuring reversible art (with a new deisgn by maarko phntm) and an insert booklet with essays by Stuart Galbraith IV and Hayley Scanlon. The transfer is comparable to other recent Toei films released in HD; it's quite nice throughout with the grain structure intact and the mostly earthy color scheme looking natural throughout. The Japanese 1.0 PCM audio is also in fine condition and features good English subtitles. In "Ninkyo 101" (14m35s), Mark Schilling (author of The Yakuza Movie Book) presents a very handy crash course on yakuza films stretching from Akira Kurosawa's Drunken Angel to the modern classics by directors like Takashi Miike, plus the origins of the yakuza and the evolution of how it was presented throughout the decades. In "Serial Gambling" (25m24s), Japanese cinema expert Chris D hones in on this film and its place within the Toei gambling cycle while pointing out particular moments of interest that help it stand apart. Also included are a 13-image gallery and a very spoiler-heavy Japanese trailer.

Reviewed on December 17, 2022.