Sunday, January 15, 2023

BIG TIME GAMBLING BOSS (1968) (Radiance Films Blu-ray Review)


Label: Radiance Films
Region Code: A
Duration: 95 Minutes 
Audio: Uncompressed Japanese PCM 1.0 Mono with Optional English Subtitles 
Video: 1080p HD Widescreen (2.39:1) 
Director: Kôsaku Yamashita
Cast: Koji Tsuruta, Tomisaburo Wakayama, Nobuo Kaneko

Set Tokyo in the thirties, the Kôsaku Yamashita directed Big Time Gambling Boss (1968) begins with Yakuza boss Arakawa falling ill, as he's laying in bed unable to speak surrounded by his clan he informs them in writing that he is too ill to lead and that a successor must be named immediately. The men decide unanimously that the respected Shinjirô Nakai (Kôji Tsuruta) should be the successor, but due to being an outsider and a loyal traditionalist he passes, suggesting instead Matsuda (Tomisaburô Wakayama, Lone Wolf & Cub). The problem is that Matsuda is still in prison, and the elders are not willing to wait for his release, a compromised is reached and the younger Kôhei Ishido (Hiroshi Nawa, Wolf Guy) is appointed. 

When Matsuda is eventually released from prison he is displeased with being passed over for the lesser Ishido, he refuses to take this slight with grace, causing violent internal strife with Matsuda swearing to kill the new boss. His friend is Nakai tasked with keeping the peace, but his his and other's clan loyalties are stretched to the breaking point, made worse by an unscrupulous clan-member working behind-the-scenes to usurp gang power.

Big Time Gambling Boss (1968) is quite a tense and atmospheric tale of gangland intrigue, written by Kazuo Kasahara (Battles Without Honor and Humanity), the film is not a frenetic overly violent gangland watch, it's a slower-burning  sort of film that develops characters, which are well-acted by all involved. It does build to proper peak thought with some effective bits of violence erupting as tensions mount, eventually boiling over to bloodshed between men torn between their sense of duty and honor, waters that are muddied by betrayal, with a rather downbeat finale that leaves a mark on you. At only 90+ minutes this is a film that packs in an epic amount of gangland intrigue and inner-clan fighting, truly a fantastic watch. 

Audio/Video: Big Time Gambling Boss (1968) makes it's North American Blu-ray debut courtesy of Radiance Films in 1080p HD framed in the original 2.39:1 widescreen, sourced from an HD master provided to Radiance Films by Toei. It does looks like a bit of an older master, it's not flawless, but it's quite clean with only some white speckling popping up occasionally. There's a slight flickering evident in spots but the transfer is well-authored and generally very pleasing with nice filmic grain and textures, the neutral color palette and skin tones look natural with good color saturation and the black levels are pleasing. There is a slight green lean that seems quite common with the Toei Japanese cinema of this era, and depth and clarity are modest. Audio comes by way of the original Japanese PCM 1.0 mono with optional English subtitles. It's a vintage mono track, range is modest but it's clean, dialogue sounds solid, and the score from Toshiaki Tsushima (The Green Slime) sounds pretty great. 

Disc extras kick-off with a pair of new visual essays, first up is the 15-min Ninkyo 101: A masterclass with Mark Schilling, author of The Yakuza Movie Book in which he breaks down Yakuza cinema and it's various incarnations beginning with the samurai films then into modern territory onto the 90's wave of direct-to-video films. Having only scratched the surface of Japanese cinema myself I appreciated this more than surface level examination of the sub-genre.  

Next up is the 25-min Serial Gambling: Visual essay by genre expert Chris D. author of Gun And Sword: An Encyclopedia Of Japanese Gangster Films 1955 - 1980, who explores Toei’s series of Gambler films with emphasis on this one, and of how the Ninkyo films sense of brotherhood, duty and honor. 
Disc extras are topped-off with a brief Promotional Gallery 
and a three minute Trailer for the film. 

The single-disc release arrives in a clear, full-height Scanavo keepcase with a Reversible Sleeve of Artwork featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by maarko phntmwith, both options featuring a numbered spine [this being #12], plus it has Radiance's Removable OBI Strip, aka a spine card. The OBI strip is an additional removable strip of paper wrapped around the spine of the release containing a rating, synopsis, technical info and advert for other Radiance releases on the flipside of it. I first became aware of these OBI strips when I would order Japanese import CD in the 90's, the first one being the Nirvana CD EP of "Hormoaning"; apparently it's a common thing in Japan with various forms of media (books, movie, vinyl) and I like the look of it, it's a pretty classy touch from Radiance. When the strip is removed it leaves the wrap pleasingly free of ratings logo and text. Inside there's a 27-Page Limited Edition Booklet, it's handsomely put together illustrated booklet featuring new writing by author Stuart Galbraith IV, and critic Hayley Scanlon that dig deep into the Yakuza ninkyo film genre and the careers of stars Koji Tsuruta, Tomisaburo Wakayama and Nobio Kaneko. 

Limited Edition Special Features:
- Serial Gambling: Visual essay by genre expert Chris D on the film and its place within the period and genre (25 min) 
- Ninkyo 101: A masterclass with Mark Schilling, author of The Yakuza Movie Book (15 min) 
- Promotional Gallery 
- Trailer (3 min) 
- Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by maarko phntm
- 27-Page Limited Edition Booklet featuring new writing by author Stuart Galbraith IV, and critic Hayley Scanlon
- Limited edition of 2000 copies, presented in full-height Scanavo packaging with removable OBI strip

Boutique label newcomer Radiance Films gives Big Time Gambling Boss (1968) a terrific North American Blu-ray debut with some solid disc and packaging extras that are sure to please physical media collectors and fans of Yakuza films. Radiance seems to be off to a strong start, they're first salvo of announcements, with the exception of Todd Solondz' Welcome to the Dollhouse, were almost completely unknown to me, which is quite an exciting prospect, I am giddy with anticipation at what undiscovered gems await us!
Screenshots from the Radiance Films Blu-ray: