Blu-ray Review: Big Time Gambling Boss

Blu-ray Reviews, Reviews, Top Story

Before we get too deep into the review, Radiance Films is only releasing 2,000 Blu-rays of Big Time Gambling Boss in North America. If you are a fan of mobster films, you will want to order a copy right now instead of risking that they won’t run out by the time you read the release date at the bottom. You don’t want to have to track down a Limited Edition copy on the underworld re-sale market on the internet.

Yakuza films were something I read more about than saw during the VHS era. The average mom & pop video store was mostly going to stock films from Japan that starred Godzilla or were directed by Akira Kurosawa. They didn’t see that much of an audience for serious Japanese films that weren’t being constantly mentioned at the local college’s International Cinema course. Yakuza films weren’t considered hot rentals so I rarely saw any on the shelves until the DVD era when a classy shop would have Criterion’s Tokyo Drifter which was known for playing with the genre. There would be magazine articles about the genre, but it was so frustrating since there weren’t any ways to easily see the films. Even the ones that were released were poorly pan and scanned, miserable transfers and comically dubbed. It was often better to read about the films than watch the available tape. In the last few years, quite a few boutique video distributors have been importing films from Asia that never received a proper release in America. Radiance Films has just started up in England and their first release in America is a masterpiece from Japan. Big Time Gambling Boss came out in 1968 and should have set the standard for mobster movies except was obscure in America when The Godfather (1972) and Mean Streets (1973) were released. Now we can truly absorb the glory of an epic Yakuza tale after 55 years.

During 1934, a few Tokyo based Yakuza families have met up to discuss expanding their criminal element in China after the Japanese military invasion. The head of the gambling family isn’t too sure since his men don’t deal in the other vices. Before he can protest too much about the land grab, he has a massive stroke. He is bed-ridden with no chance of recovery. He can barely communicate through writing. He wants them to pick a new leader for his operation. He’s retired. this is when things get complicated. The obvious pick is Tetsuo Matsuda (Lone Wolf & Cub‘s Tomisaburô Wakayama). But he’s in prison and the heads of the other crime families don’t want to wait until he’s released. They offer the gig to Shinjirô Nakai (Golgo 13: Assignment Kowloon‘s Kôji Tsuruta). He refuses to take the lead job for two reasons: first started out in Yokohama and it’s wrong for him to lead a Tokyo family and he thinks Matsuda deserves the role. The other families appoint the inexperienced Kôhei Ishido (Wolf Guy‘s Hiroshi Nawa). They also announce they will have a massive gambling event for the region’s high rollers with the money going towards the old boss’s retirement fund. Matsuda gets out of prison a bit early and is not happy when Nakai gives him the news of who is in charge of the operation. The reason Matsuda went to prison is to protect the gang. He’s been faithful and followed the code only to end up screwed. Nakai tries to keep the peace and maintain the code. This might prove futile as Matsuda and his loyal lieutenants aren’t eager to play nice.

There’s so much going on in a movie that’s just over 90 minutes. This one movie could be drawn out into a series on HBO. The movie goes into how the Yakuza preaches one thing and does another. There’s so much frustration as Nakai loses so much when trying to do things to the code. The sacrifices add up until the final and slightly unexpected confrontation within the crime family. Even in a film filled with bad guys, you do feel a bit of sympathy for a few characters. Matsuda has a right to be upset at what was done while he did the right thing by doing the time behind bars. Tomisaburô Wakayama and Kôji Tsuruta are a perfect pair on screen. They rank up there with Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci in Goodfellas and Casino. Big Time Gambling Boss is a cinematic masterpiece right down to the final moment when with an ironic twist to finish off the mayhem.

The video is 2.35:1 anamorphic. The 1080p transfer brings out the details of the Yakuza life. The audio is LCPM mono of the original Japanese soundtrack. The movie is subtitled in English.

Ninkyo 101 (14:35) is a video essay by Mark Schilling, author of The Yakuza Movie Book. He gives a lot of detail on the history of the Yakuza and the film genre. Turns out there was a change in the mobster activity after World War II. Ninkyo Eiga are the “Chivalry Films.” The first real Yakuza film was Drunken Angel by Akira Kurosawa in 1948. We get to see an ariel view of Toei’s studio complex.

Serial Gambling (25:24) has Chris D. (author of Gun and Sword: An Encylopedia of Japanese Gangster Films 1955-1980) get into how Toei Studio produced Big Time Gambling Boss and their other Yakuza films. He points out this is the 4th film of a 10 movie series called Gambling Den or Gambling House. He gives a sense of what the other films were about. One features a Yakuza tattoo contest amongst members like a beauty contest. Big Time Gambling Boss is at level that none of the other 9 movies capture.

Gallery features 11 press photos and poster for the Japanese release.

Trailer (3:07) promises a Yakuza massacre. You might not want to watch this before the movie since it has a major scene giveaway.

Radiance Films present Big Time Gambling Boss. Directed by Kôsaku Yamashita. Screenplay by Kazuo Kasahara. Starring Kôji Tsuruta, Tomisaburô Wakayama, Hiroshi Nawa, Nobuo Kaneko, Hiroko Sakuramachi, Hideto Kagawa, Michiyo Hattori & Shin’ichirô Mikami. Rating: Unrated. Running Time: 95 minutes. Release Date: January 17, 2023.

Joe Corey is the writer and director of "Danger! Health Films" currently streaming on Night Flight and Amazon Prime. He's the author of "The Seven Secrets of Great Walmart People Greeters." This is the last how to get a job book you'll ever need. He was Associate Producer of the documentary "Moving Midway." He's worked as local crew on several reality shows including Candid Camera, American's Most Wanted, Extreme Makeover Home Edition and ESPN's Gaters. He's been featured on The Today Show and CBS's 48 Hours. Dom DeLuise once said, "Joe, you look like an axe murderer." He was in charge of research and programming at the Moving Image Archive.