Ahhh, Ginza. Gamblers paradise and gamblers hell. Land where the walls are littered with nudie pin-ups.
As skilled with a pool cue or cards as she is with a sword, Nami (Meiko Kaji) returns to her old stomping grounds with a serious goal in mind: find her father's killer. Before she can even get her sandals on Giza concrete, Nami defends a young woman, Hanae, from some scurrilous gangsters. Hanae's father had a run of bad luck and sold off his unwilling daughter to cover gambling debts. Nami takes up the cause of winning, literally, Hanae's freedom, so her first steps back into Ginza society instantly draw the ire of the local crimelord Aiboshi. Nami gets Hanae a job as a nightclub hostess in a joint run by an old friend, Miyoko. She also crosses paths and finds an ally in low level pimp, Ryuji (Sonny Chiba).
Aiboshi makes Nami an offer she should not refuse, to be his card dealer, which she likens to being a bird kept in a cage. Aiboshi also muscles in on Ryuji's struggling business. Aiboshi's power extends to Miyoko, who has debts of her own. And, of course there is the matter of Nami finding her fathers killer. Suffice to say, by the end, double crosses are double crossed, everything takes a turn for the worse, she discovers the identity of her father's murderer, the blades come out flashing and the guns come out blazing.
With part two, it oddly seems that they almost forgot who Nami was. While the role was typical of Meiko Kaji, a silent, strong beauty, the first film handles Nami as a cross between Meiko's Stray Cat Rock streetwise delinquent and her demure Lady Snowblood, she's a urban kid raised in the hustle trying to go semi-good and keep to herself who only lashes out when she's pushed too far. In the second film, she's from the first frame kimono clad (how she ends the first film, so it is a carry over) and picture of reserved quiet cool. There is only one scene, where she is in street clothes having familiar dialogue with her old pal, that reflects the first films casualness with her character. In part two she is a bit more uptight compared to what came before. Contradictorily, I didn't think her earthiness quite worked in the first film, but I missed it in the second. Go figure. They also ejected Nami being a pool hustler and stuck to her playing cards, a gambling angle used in many Japanese movies whereas the billiards slant was more unique avenue within a yakuza film.
Hold over elements from the first film are present in part two. They really weren't aiming for a truly exploitative, funky, or off the wall crime number. Its more about making a solid, mainstream appealing tale of the low level underworld. Once again, all of the action is reserved for finale. Of course, during said finale, Meiko and Sonny get to tag team which is welcome and also funny because his being a badass goes against character. Ryuji is mostly painted as stuttering, barely focused lady charmer but if you hire Sonny Chiba, character be damned, the man's getting his grimace on and busting some heads by the end credits. Overall, main character issues aside, part two plays better than first film. Nagging points of the first film are not as present, such as, the story moves well, the subplots are interesting, and the small doses of comedic relief are more amusing. Watching the first film, I had moments where I was a bit disinterested, but not so with the sequel.
The DVD: Synapse.
Picture: The ravages of time are not very apparent in Synapses anamorphic widescreen transfer. Sure, the grain level is a tad high and there are moments where the contrast yields a few weak spots, but overall for a 30(+) year old film it looks very good. Artifacts are mostly null, nothing too blatant to this viewers eyes.
Sound: The DVD features a basic Japanese language mono track with pleasing optional English subtitles. While not robust, due to the source, the track is fairly bright and free from any severe age distortions like muffle or tinniness.
Extras: The extras feature Reversible Cover (and, seriously, if you dont chose the original Japanese post art, then you have no sense of style and need to paint yourself beige and go lay in a desolate field), Trailer, Poster Gallery, Meiko Kaji Bio & Filmography, and Interviews with director Kazuhiko Yamaguchi (37:27) and pinky violence expert J-Taro Sugisaku (10:57).
The Yamaguchi interview is a carry over from the first disc, so the Sugisaku interview is really the only distinct extra for this release. Sugisaku discusses Kaji's career, typecasting, how the film fit into her resume, and makes note of how the films are much like the Red Peony Gambler series and how Kaji fittingly became the box office successor to Red Peony Gambler star, Junko Fuji.
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. For my review of the first film, click here.
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. 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 straightforward, more tepid numbers in the genre. For fans, Synapse offers plenty of incentive with the transfer and extras, making both discs well worth a purchase.