3.5 out of 5 stars

Fans of Japan’s genre cinema will welcome this latest box set from Eureka Entertainment presenting the first three films in the Valiant Red Peony / 緋牡丹博徒 / Hibotan Bakuto cinematic series, restored by Toei from the original film elements. The film series relies on a familiar format with its titular character moving from place to place, plying her trade as a gambling hostess, improving her skills, dealing with injustice, standing up to powerful bad guys, and acquiring allies and enemies. Collected here are the first three instalments: Red Peony Gambler (1968), Red Peony Gambler 2: Gambler’s Obligation (1968), and Red Peony Gambler 3: The Flower Cards Game (1969). Drawing from the rich heritage of the chivalrous yakuza genre, they refresh all the desired tropes in a fitting swansong for the post-war Golden Age of ninkyo eiga before it gave way to the brutally realist jitsuroku eiga of the 1970s.

The first wave of Yakuza films, set in Japan’s criminal underworld, were typically categorised as ninkyo eiga—centred on chivalrous gangsters who strove to preserve the traditions of their samurai predecessors. Initially, these gangsters differed from the yakuza and tended to be centred around gambling culture, known simply as bakuto, meaning “gambler.” It was bakuto clans who introduced the shoulder and torso tattoos, which they would display when dealing cards or supervising dice games shirtless—a clear demonstration that they had no hidden weapons, cards, or dice. The period setting tended to be the Meiji era and into the Taisho era, roughly analogous to the Victorian and Edwardian eras. Thus, they were the natural successors of the jidaigeki samurai films that had been popular since before the war.

Red Peony Gambler / Hibotan bakuto (1968)

3 out of 5 stars

When her father is murdered, Ryuko Yano sets out for revenge and takes on a new name derived from the crimson flower tattooed on her shoulder—Oryū, the Red Peony.

A visually striking sequence introduces us to Ryuko Yano (Sumiko Fuji, credited as Junko Fuji) kneeling in a red void carpeted with white mist. She introduces herself as a daughter of the Yano clan, explaining that she’s better known as Oryū, the Red Peony. This scene segues into an equally minimalist version of a gambling den where Oryū sits at the centre of twin rows of players facing each other in a black void.

This kind of stylistic opening recalls Hong Kong action cinema of the time which sometimes utilised relatively blank stages with a single dominant flat colour during title sequences that relate to a film’s theme but not necessarily to the plot. More likely, though, it has its roots in Japanese theatrical traditions such as bunraku puppet plays, performed on a predominantly black stage so that the puppeteers, clad entirely in black, become inconspicuous.

However, we see no puppeteers here which implies that other unseen forces are at work, immediately highlighting the recurring theme of entwined destinies or, at least unlikely coincidence, that brings people together and influences lives. Right from the start, a seasoned genre director, Kôsaku Yamashita not only delivers a thrilling crowdpleaser but also weaves in plenty of poetic allusions and some serious subtexts for those who want to delve deeper. For the gambler, chance is something that can be influenced to work in favour of or against the player. So, trust in ‘lady luck’ and the cheat’s sleight of hand will become metaphors for trust and betrayal.

Following the opening credits, the expressionistic depiction of the gambling den is replaced by a convincingly realistic one. Fujimatsu (Kyôsuke Machida) accuses another gambler of palming a card or some such chicanery. Don’t worry if you’re not a gambler; the plot never requires more than a passing understanding of betting rules.

If the accused shows his card and proves no underhandedness, he asks how Fujimatsu will atone for such a grave insult. Fujimatsu rashly offers his life as an apology, if necessary. But when the suspect’s hand is revealed, it seems there’s been no foul play.

However, as he prepares to accept his execution, Oryū intervenes to expose the deception for all to see. She presents an ultimatum to the Takehana clan boss, demanding recompense for what transpired in their gambling den. The cheat must, according to yakuza custom, perform yubitsume—cutting off a finger as an alternative to more severe punishment.

Later, along with a bunch of his cronies, the disgruntled cardsharp ambushes Oryū at a cemetery. Expecting a lone woman to be easy pickings, they’re surprised by her sword skills, but she’s outnumbered nonetheless. Despite her valiant self-defence, things aren’t looking good until a stranger who’d been praying at a nearby funeral shrine helps drive off her attackers.

This stoic stranger, Katagiri (Ken Takakura), insists on treating Oryū’s rather nasty cut to her shoulder, which she must expose, revealing her ostentatious, yakuza-style tattoos of red peonies. As she does so, a wallet with a distinctive netsuke figurine fastener falls from the folds of her kimono. She senses that Katagiri recognises it and presses him to tell her what he knows. He declines to give anything away until she explains what the wallet means to her. We then learn, by way of flashback, how it came to be in her possession…

Before she took on the moniker of Oryū, the Red Peony, she was simply Ryuko of the Yano clan which oversaw a territory on the island of Kyushu. However, her father was winding down his yakuza operations and hoped his daughter could break free by marrying into a wealthy merchant family. Tragically, as the wedding approached, her father was killed by a street robber, apparently for the cash he was carrying. The only person to catch a glimpse of the killer’s face was clan lieutenant, Fugushin (Rinichi Yamamoto). As Ryuko cradled her dying father, she noticed that the white peonies nearby had, like her, been stained red by his blood and beneath the shrub lay a wallet, dropped by the assailant. This colour-changing motif will be carried through the rest of the movie with transitions from white to red to black all having symbolic resonance with the action. Indeed, the theme of transition—personal, societal, and political—is central to the narratives in all three films presented here.

Though it was a random mugging rather than a yakuza hit, the groom’s family feared such violence would follow Ryuko. Consequently, they cancel the wedding. With the lost promise of a law-abiding life, Ryuko pledges to continue her training as a gambling hostess and learn the ways of the yakuza. Thus, after avenging her father, she can restore the Yano clan in his honour. In the meantime, she instructs Fugushin to take the men and offer their services to their allies, the Kumatora clan led by Torakichi (Tomisaburo Wakayama).

After all that backstory, Katagiri says he can’t tell her anything about the wallet and leaves. Only after he’s gone does Oryū realise he took the wallet with him. Was her father simply the victim of a random street thug? Who is Katagiri and why did this stranger keep the only material clue to the identity of the killer? With both the calibre of the cast and the enigma and intrigue of the opening 20 minutes, surely the audience will be hooked.

Though already specialising in playing lady yakuza, Sumiko Fuji wasn’t yet the star the Red Peony films would make her. She’d already racked up some 35 big-screen appearances, more than a few alongside Ken Takakura, who at the time was probably the most famous actor associated with yakuza roles, renowned for his stillness and powerful screen presence.

Kyôsuke Machida, who plays her most formidable and loyal follower, will also be a familiar face to fans of samurai and yakuza films. Here, he was about a quarter of the way through his prolific career spanning four decades.

Another stalwart of the genre, Rinichi Yamamoto, better known for playing villains, is cast against type here as a loyal follower of Oryū. He’s determined to become her right-hand man and help her rebuild her clan. As the story unfolds, his true motives become all too clear to everyone except Oryū, who remains a touch slow on the uptake. Yamamoto excels at conveying this with posture and expressions unseen by his lady boss.

So, amongst the entwined stories of individuals, we have an understated love story as well as vengeance, loyalty, and betrayal.

Oryū’s so focused on vengeance that she misses or misunderstands the affection several men have for her. Among them is Torakichi, with Tomisaburo Wakayama perfectly cast against type as a semi-comic character. He may be the most recognisable actor to audiences outside Japan for his role as Itto Ogami in Kenji Misumi’s Lone Wolf and Cub adaptations (1972-73). These films opened up the international market for jidaigeki when a mash-up of the first two films was released as Shogun Assassin (1980). With Wakayama well-known for playing undefeated samurai, and a real-life master of Iaidō, audiences might expect him to enter the fray and sort things out at some point. So, it’s surprising that he plays a kindly buffoon with an Oliver Hardy-esque moustache, never drawing his sword during the first film and only using a blade in the second to prepare some fish for a feast. In doing so, he showcases his range and provides most of the film’s lighter moments.

Torakichi indeed offers to share a cup of saké for engagement with Oryū who misunderstands this as an offer of brotherhood between their two clans. To save face, he participates in the ceremony of sharing saké during the formal ritual. It was unheard of at the time for a woman to become a clan boss and there is only one known instance since of a female taking part in the sharing of cups and being accepted into this exclusively male role. Becoming a boss in this way means that other yakuza now have to treat her according to certain honour codes. However, not all yakuza are honourable and such outmoded concepts of brotherhood and reciprocity are being pushed aside by greed and corruption.

Although set in the Meiji era, these transitional values reflect the rapid changes in post-war Japan as the socio-political landscape accommodated foreign influences and embraced capitalism. Here, this is explored through the contrasting characters of Katagiri and his clan brother Gōzō Kakui (Minoru Ōki) with their rivalry culminating in a satisfying showdown of a handful of honourable old-school yakuza, led by Oryū, facing off against an entire household of ruthless criminals. Although the ending is ultimately bittersweet, those necessary for a sequel survive.

JAPAN | 1968 | 98 MINUTES | 2.35:1 | COLOUR | JAPANESE

Red Peony Gambler 2: Gambler’s Obligation / Hibotan bakuto: Isshuku ippan (1968)

3 out of 5 stars

Oryū is invited to stay with a local yakuza boss of a silk farming town. When a rival gang murders the boss Oryū takes it upon herself to protect his business and family.

Sumiko Fuji reprises her role as Oryū, as she would a total of eight times, and in this second instalment has settled into the part. Some reviewers have criticised her acting style as inexpressive, and I can sort of see that in the first film where Oryū is maintaining her cool. It’s a front that the character dares not let slip for fear of her emotions taking control. I feel she found a subtle though uneasy balance but, this time, turns in a centred and sometimes emotionally devastating performance. Oryū is building the confidence to acknowledge and control her feminine feelings as a source of strength and compassion. While she repeatedly tells others that she is now a man and must be accepted as such. This ongoing exploration of gender identity seems surprisingly modern and is one facet of transition key to the central narratives of these first three chapters.

The actress was raised in a showbiz family, and her film director father, Shundo Koji, steps in as producer for the second Red Peony film. Her uncle was screenwriter Suzuki Norifumi, creator of the Red Peony cinematic series, who had a hand in writing all the scripts and decided to direct the second chapter.

The first film told its story on a more personal level, but now we move on to broader social concerns. It might sound strange, but in addition to gender roles, the concept of what constituted criminal and lawful behaviour was also in transition. Traditionally, yakuza clans had been keepers of the peace on a local scale, upholders of justice, and adjudicators in disputes. Of course, just like official councils, this presented opportunities for favouritism, corruption, and profiteering. The fraternity of the underworld observed those in government office also behaving in similarly dishonourable ways, accepting bribes or giving valuable contracts in exchange for various nefarious favours. So, the yakuza are confronted with a conundrum: how to maintain their age-old codes in a modern world where corruption on a national scale goes unchecked—it seems politicians are even bigger crooks! (Some things never change!)

Gangster film enthusiasts will likely relish this second chapter, but the first 15 minutes or so were crammed with too much discussion of criminal machinations to hold my attention. Far too many names and territories are bandied about to keep track of. Thankfully, however, much like the intricacies of gambling, one doesn’t need to fully understand any of it to follow the plot.

What we learn is that farmers and silk workers are suffering after two consecutive years of heavy frosts that all but destroyed their mulberry crop, leaving them struggling to make ends meet. They find themselves at the mercy of ruthless loan sharks and have resorted to selling their daughters to pay off the interest. So, they turn to their local yakuza boss, Togasaki (Michitarô Mizushima), to intervene. Oryū warns him that he’s being manoeuvred into a no-win situation, but he feels honour-bound to defend the people of the territory his clan oversees. However, their attempt to intervene is met with deadly force from armed police defending the legal, though unscrupulous, loan company.

Meanwhile, Oryū is deployed to break the winning streak of Oren (Mari Shiraki) a professional gambler suspected of cheating. Although this is the beginning of a fierce rivalry and a series of grudge matches between them, they develop respect for each other in a world where women are often exchanged as tokens to signify power and submission between men.

In her absence, the loan shark Kuramochi (Tatsuo Endô) has sold the workers’ debts on to the notorious yakuza boss Yaichiro Kasamatau (Bin Amatsu) who is vying to take control of multiple territories through ‘legal’ means. He now effectively owns the workers as bonded labourers and sets up a centralised silk processing factory where the women are forced to work around the clock to meet sales targets. They are working off their family’s debt so are not paid but beaten if they try to escape. A clear indictment of how exploitative capitalism can be when the only measure of success is profit and people are reduced to disposable parts in the system.

In a bid to change things, Oryū presents herself to the council of yakuza bosses meeting in Tokyo to discuss recognising Kasamatau as a new member. She speaks eloquently in opposition to the proposal, and this marks her out for elimination. In a fight scene, rather poetically shot in heavy rain, another stoic stranger intervenes to level the odds. This time the strong, silent hero who awakens Oryū’s feminine feelings is Shūtaro (Kôji Tsuruta), who escaped the poverty of growing up in the silk-producing town but feels a kinship with the beleaguered workers and reluctantly stays on to help Oryū.

As part of his power grab, Kasamatau is also attempting to take over the local delivery and logistics company run by Yûkichi Togasaki (Kunio Murai), who he’s arranged to be arrested so he can use the promise of his release as leverage to force his wife, Machi (Yuki Shirono), to sign over the company. Kasamatau also employs torture and rape as means of persuasion. In the aftermath, there’s a powerful scene between Oryū and Machi, involving astonishing performances from Yuki Shirono and Sumiko Fuji, that’s deeply affecting and proves Fuji certainly isn’t an ‘inexpressive’ actress.

With the treacherous villains firmly established, the unfolding action follows a similar path to part one. This suggests we’re hurtling towards a showdown where a handful of honourable yakuza will make a stand against overwhelming odds. Sure enough, the frenetic action of the finale doesn’t disappoint, and although tinged with tragedy once more, it leaves us wanting more…

JAPAN | 1968 | 95 MINUTES | 2.35:1 | COLOUR | JAPANESE

Red Peony Gambler 3: The Flower Cards Game / Hibotan bakuto: Hanafuda shôbu (1969)

3.5 out of 5 stars

After saving a blind child from being hit by an oncoming train, the gambler known as Oryū, The Red Peony, is accepted as a guest by a Yakuza boss only to become involved in a romantic dispute between members of rival clans.

It’s notoriously difficult for the third film of a franchise to live up to expectations but I’m happy to say that this second sequel surpasses its predecessors. Perhaps it’s a little disconcerting that the Red Peony films rely on an ensemble cast of Toei-contracted talent. So, here we have villains and heroes played by actors we readily recognise from their appearances as different characters, some of which we’ve seen die, whereas some are reprising the same roles. Not really a problem, after all, we do know this is fiction and these are actors, but watching the films back-to-back makes things a little confusing so, I would recommend leaving suitable gaps between viewings.

There’s a marked change in stylistic approach with Tai Katô confidently taking the directorial helm and employing visual cues lifted from the Western genre. Along with an orchestral score that isn’t dissimilar to Hollywood themes of the day, this makes it feel more accessible to international audiences. Katô began his career making documentaries before working as an assistant director to Akira Kurosawa on Rashomon (1950) and then establishing himself as a prolific director of jidaigeki through the 1950s, gradually transitioning to yakuza films in the 1960s.

The opening scenes utilise his signature extreme wide shots and dramatic low angles as Oryū rescues a young blind girl from being struck by a train. This chance encounter entwines her destiny with that of the girl and her mother, Otoki (Junkô Tôda), in a way that will resonate beyond the finale of this instalment.

An overarching theme that connects these first three films is an examination of relationships involving daughters—from Oryū’s quest to avenge and honour her deceased father, to absent fathers separated from their families due to the pressures of the bakuto lifestyle, and a scene that swiftly establishes the villains this time around: a businessman offering his daughter as part payment to secure a construction contract. These are the sleazy congressman Furata (Asao Uchida), in cahoots with the yakuza boss, and possibly the nastiest piece of work so far, Tetsunosuke (Asao Koike)—almost Faustian in the pleasure he seems to derive from manipulating others.

Flower Cards Game is by far the coolest and most cleverly conceived of the three Red Peony films so far. The narrative relies on a few chance encounters, but what is a gambler’s life if not governed by the vagaries of fate?

For example, when Oryū offers her services to a yakuza clan, she is rebuffed as a cheat and must press for an explanation. It turns out a shameless imposter is using the Red Peony ‘brand’ to position herself in gambling dens. So Oryū sets out to investigate and discovers it has been Otoki, the mother of the blind girl she rescued. Instead of exposing her as a cheat, she helps her to escape, if only temporarily.

Later, Oryū is pitted against ‘the God of Gambling’ (Akira Shioji), who turns out to be none other than Otoki’s wayward husband. Rather than pushing things beyond the realms of believability, these complications help build a satisfyingly intricate web of intrigue, a puzzle of interwoven lives that Oryū must attempt to unravel while minimising losses.

Ken Takakura returns as a different stoic stranger who fulfils the same duties as he did the first time around, and Tomisaburo Wakayama makes a welcome return as Torakichi. This time, he finally manages to demonstrate some of the martial arts skills that placed him in the position of a clan boss. The film benefits from familiarity with the characters and setting and makes good use of the custom of formal introductions to recap or introduce new players.

The only very minor quibble I have is that it once again follows the predictable format of setting up a superbly hateful villain and ending on a spectacular showdown with Oryū leading her handful of staunch, chivalrous yakuza into a heroic battle where the odds are decidedly stacked against them. It would have been nice to have a surprise twist, but once again, it works well as a satisfying denouement.

JAPAN | 1969 | 98 MINUTES | 2.35:1 | COLOUR | JAPANESE

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Blu-ray Special Features:

  • Limited edition O-Card slipcase featuring new artwork by Grégory Sacré (Gokaiju) [2000 copies].
  • 1080p HD presentation of all three films from restorations of the original film elements supplied by Toei. A great job, colours are either beautifully saturated or delicately subtle, though some lens distortions are unavoidably retained from the source material, which only adds to the nostalgic appeal.
  • Original Japanese audio tracks (uncompressed LPCM mono).
  • Optional English Subtitles.
  • Brand new audio commentary tracks on all three films. Chris Poggiali provides an informative commentary for the first film, covering the expected biographies of key cast and crew. He also discusses other movies featuring lady gamblers and draws parallels with Marvel comic book superheroes. I would have appreciated more focus on the historical and contextual aspects of the film we were watching, but I assume a lot of such information has been lost. Arne Venema and Mike Leeder provide their typically entertaining and lively commentary for the second film. They cover some of the historical backdrops of Japan, both in the period setting and in the post-war film industry. They also explain a little about the complexities of the gambling scene in Japan and some real-life yakuza-related titbits. Tom Mes provides the commentary for chapter three and is a great choice as he’s not only knowledgeable about Japanese genre cinema in general, but has also written an extended essay about Tai Katô (published by Radiance as a standalone monograph), the research for which must have informed his commentary here which does focus on the director as well as providing the usual background information on cast, crew, and production.  
  • Tony Rayns on Red Peony Gambler. A brand new 20-minute interview with critic and Asian cinema expert Tony Rayns. He begins with a very useful explanation of the differences between several related genres and subgenres of Japanese cinema before placing the Red Peony films against a contextual backdrop and discussing the prominent themes. He shares information about the cast and crew and offers his own valid critical opinions, not all of which I found myself in accord with.
  • Trailers.
  • A collector’s booklet featuring new writing by Jennifer Coates (Making Icons: Repetition and the Female Image in Japanese Cinema, 1945–1964) and Joe Hickinbottom.
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Cast & Crew

directors: Kôsaku Yamashita (1) • Norifumi Suzuki (2) • Tai Katô (3).
writers: Norifumi Suzuki (1-2) • Tatsuo Nogami (2) • Hisakichi Ishimoto, Norifumi Suzuki & Motohiro Torii (3).
starring: Sumiko Fuji • Ken Takakura (2-3), Tomisaburô Wakayama (1-2) • Kanjûrô Arashi (3).