In 1971 with the two Wandering Ginza Butterfly films, actress and soon to be eternal cult icon Meiko Kaji made the switch from Nikkatsu Studios to Toei. The Ginza Butterfly duo would be a primer between her Stray Cat Rock youth gang films and the two series for which she would become most well known, the Lady Snowblood and Female Convict Scorpion films.
After spilling some gangster blood in a gang battle, Nami (Meiko Kaji) is sentenced to prison and emerges three years later ready to live a somewhat straighter life, as straight as one can get when you've been raised in the low level crime world. Her main goal is to atone for her crime that left the gangster's wife alone without a breadwinner, sick, and with a child to raise. Nami first reconnects with her uncle, who runs a pool hall, a place where she practically grew up and honed some serious skills. Through Ryuji, a low level pimp, she finds the widow and gets work in a hostess club where she is looked down upon by the other girls for her criminal past- kinda' strange considering how the girls at such clubs often straddle the line between innocent flirting and prostitution. Probably a weird cultural thing, likewise, her prison stint for murder is a mere three years.
The local crime boss, Owada, begins to put pressure on the club madam, who has some outstanding debt. Owada, of course, wants to force the madam into an insulting buyout via making the interest so high on her repayment, she will have no choice but to sell or go under. Ryuji's brother, also a good-hearted scammer, Shin, is also on Owada's bad side, and this leads to Nami taking up both the pool cue and the sword to rectify things for her friends.
The pinky violence exploitation label is often tagged onto the Ginza Butterfly films but it doesn't quite apply. These are really more straightforward crime film numbers. Though he was a capable action helmer, director Kazuhiko Yamaguchi (Sister Streetfighter, Delinquent Girl Boss: Blossoming Night Dreams, Karate Warriors) keeps the more exploitative, gonzo style elements in check. Its less about titillation, violence, and expressive flourishes as it is a look at the environment and the line between criminal opportunists scurrying to make a buck and the high hand of the big-headed bosses. And, ctral, is Nami and her struggle for redemption and fight against her natural inclinations towards the crime lifestyle. Tonewise, the bulk is more about some light comedy and the colorful Ginza denizens surviving on the fringes of the law, and the only real action kicks in at the end, a bloody bomb dropped onto an otherwise actionless film.
I've always been back-and-forth about how I feel about Kaji in these films. In this first entry, it is a tad strange to see her in a star vehicle where she is almost on the sidelines, more at the mercy of the villains and the setting rather than being the barely contained force of nature providing the films foundation. On one hand, she is flexing some different muscles than her best known roles. On the other, the character is slightly different (more humane) but still not a deep stretch, she is still working off a caricature, so being a more cypherish genre uber/anti-heroine like she usually played would have also been fitting. It is really only in the scenes where she gets to deliver that kill-you-dead stare that she springs to life and the Kaji that films fans grew to love, cheer, and lust after emerges.
The DVD: Synapse.
Picture: The film is presented with an excellent anamorphic widescreen print. Technical difficulties, compression, artifacts, etc, are not present to any severe degree. The only flaws are of the understandable sort due to the films age. As such, the grain level is a tad high and the sharpness is sometimes lacking. Otherwise, it is a very tight print, clean, with good contrast levels and excellent color details.
Sound: The sole audio choice is in its original mono Japanese with optional English subtitles. Again, to ape what I said in the visual portion of the review, the only real drawbacks are within the parameters of the tracks age. It is limited but relatively clear and certainly well-presented. The subtitles are excellent, well-timed and appear to be well-translated.
Extras: A nice round of extras begins with a Reversible Cover, Theatrical Trailer, Poster gallery, Meiko Kaji Bio & Filmography, Commentary by "Oulaw Masters of Japanese Cinema" (an essential read) author Chris D, and finally and interview with director Kazuhiko Yamaguchi (37:27).
Chris D is not here to hold your hand. The man knows his Japanese cinema and you better know a little too, otherwise you will be lost in the flood of names, studios, and referencing of genre predilections. That said, it is a good commentary track with D putting everything into context, from how the film works in Kaji and Yamaguchi's resume as well as the overall view of how it fits within the Toei studio and general 60's/70's Japanese crime film genre.
The most meaty extra, and be forewarned one that contains spoilers for the second film, is the interview with Kazuhiko Yamaguchi. Covering not only the film specifically but his overall career, it is pretty much an absolute godsend for fans of the genre.
Conclusion: I'm going to sum up both of the films in my conclusion. Makes sense as anyone curious about one will be curious about the other.
On the technical side, both are fine DVD's. Synapse does a stand up job with the transfers and offers some nice extras, especially for part one. As for the films themselves, I think both are cracking with crime goodness but have little flaws keep them from being standout. In the pantheon of Meiko Kaji films, these rank at the bottom of her starring role features. The first film has those all too essential character origin beats but suffers some dull storytelling, while the second film has superior motivation, pacing, and better sideplotting. Really, if you took the good character, action, and story elements from both films, you'd have one fantastic movie. Those new to 70's Japanese crime/exploitation films should rent them first and be forewarned they are tepid, straightforward numbers in the genre. For fans, Synapse offers plenty of incentive with the transfer and extras, making both discs well worth a purchase.