Reviewed by Nathaniel Poggiali
Cult actress Meiko Kaji bolted from Nikkatsu Studios following her work in the STRAY CAT ROCK youth gang series to go under contract for Toei, a partnership that eventually resulted in the hugely popular FEMALE PRISONER #701: SCORPION and its three sequels.
Meiko stars as Nami, former head of the Red Cherry Gang released from prison after a three-year stint and working as a nightclub hostess under gentle Madam Sae in the Ginza section of Tokyo. Easily the most aggressive hostess on the payroll, Nami steals a truck owned by a construction worker refusing to pay for drinks and pulls a knife on one of her co-workers. Sae and her irresponsible fiancé, Shin, find themselves in money trouble with businessman/gangster Owada. Nami challenges Owada to a game of billiards to clear her employer's debt, but when the hired player blows his cool and his game, Owada welches and has Shin killed. Our heroine throws on a kimono, grabs a sword and goes after Owada and his men with the help of best friend/comic relief Ryuji.
A cheerfully erratic drama that plays like THE HUSTLER re-imagined as a contemporary samurai picture, GINZA finds director Kazuhiko Yamaguchi (SISTER STREETFIGHTER, KARATE WARRIORS) grabbing at anything for the sake of a good show. Incredibly, he succeeds. I had a lot of fun viewing this fast-paced, stylish entertainment, and was surprised at the level of coherence and intensity that Yamaguchi brings to the crucial billiard game (one wild highlight is Owada's player imploding from narcotic withdrawal). As a heroine of fierce loyalty and anger management issues, Meiko commands the screen with coolness and beauty and, as usual, sings a catchy theme song.
Toei's only sequel, WANDERING GINZA: SHE-CAT GAMBLER (WILDCAT GAMBLER) (1972), has the more traditional revenge story. Meiko returns as a hanafuda (flower card) player seeking her father's murderer. There are no other returning players and Nami seems like a different character, so viewers may consider this more of a "reboot" than a proper sequel. The first film's charming anything-goes approach is ditched in favor of a plot akin to the RED PEONY GAMBLER series featuring Junko Fuji. SHE-CAT GAMBLER has the tighter story -- and Shinichi "Sonny" Chiba is very amusing in a rare comic role -- but it plays a familiar game and never really trumps the unexpected pleasures of Part 1.