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Wandering Ginza Butterfly Reviewed by Tim Irwin This is the first time
this film has been released on DVD and I am quite excited. It's one of
the many movies that the Toei Company made in the early 1970's about
the Yakuza and various gangster activities in Tokyo. It features Meiko
Kaji, the star of numerous franchises during the 1970's. She was not
only Lady Snowblood before Uma Thurman and Quentin Tarantino came
along, she was also in Stray Cat Rock: Sex Hunter and other films from
that franchise, and she was Prisoner 701 in the Joshuu series. Not to
mention the various Kinji Fukasaku films she starred in.
And now the folks at Synapse Films recently put together this transfer and presented us with another one of Meiko's films. Be careful going into it, though, because if you're expecting something like Yakuza Deka (with Sonny Chiba, who starred in Wandering Ginza Butterfly 2 with Meiko) you might be disappointed. This is a Yakuza film, to be sure, but it's more of a drama than an action or gangster movie.
Meiko is Nami and is again in prison. Same name, same story as the Joshuu films, but no matter. This time she's just been released after three years hard time. She heads back to Tokyo to meet up with her uncle, who owns a billiard hall and taught her how to hustle pool. She gets involved with a local semi-gangster, Ryuji, who hooks the various sex clubs up with hostesses. Since she's rather attractive (and tough) she soon becomes one of the best hostesses around: pretty enough to attract clientèle and mean enough to make sure they pay.
But of course the Owada clan is muscling in on the Ginza neighborhood, and soon the club's owner finds she is being bullied into selling the club to Owada or forfeiting it outright. This is when Nami gets a chance to pay back the kindness shown to her by Ryuji and the club's Madam.
There is quite a bit going on in the story, including several side plots having to do with Nami's past and how she ended up in prison. The first 75 minutes of the film are almost solely concerned with these flashbacks and her current hostessing. This is not a bad thing, but if you're expecting geysers of blood at every turn you might become slightly bored.
Then, in the final ten minutes, the film erupts in an orgy of violence. It's almost like the recent films of Takeshi Kitano, where everything is calm and peaceful before exploding in brief and brutal violence. The main difference is that here the small amount of violence follows the same style as Lady Snowblood, with the slashing and stabbing. One might also expect a fair amount of sex and nudity, much like Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion. However, almost all the nudity is discreet and only present in pinup posters on a wall.
From a production standpoint, Wandering Ginza Butterfly is very similar to other Japanese gangster films from the same time period. There are moments of stylish directing, such as the camera that searches the background until it finds the one person it wants to portray. Other than that everything merely exists to push the story along. Kaji has the physical presence and beauty to convincingly play Nami, and the other actors also turn in fine performances.
From a DVD standpoint the transfer is very well done. The Japanese mono soundtrack is present with optional English subtitles, and the picture is very clear and crisp, especially for an older foreign film.
This is definitely worth catching, especially for those hardcore fans of Meiko Kaji. Keep in mind, however, that it's not one of your standard pinky violence flicks; here the blood and nudity is kept fairly well under wraps. Regardless, it's short, sweet and climaxes with a payoff worthy of any fan of the genre.
I have seen Meiko Kaji in several films, including her "Lady Snowblood"
films. They were very stylish and never dull. Here in "Wandering Ginza
Butterfly", however, I was shocked by how little I cared for the movie.
The biggest problem is that nothing particularly happened for the first
90% of the film and the finale just wasn't enough to save it. And, too
often, story points just seem to lead no where.
The film begins in prison where Kaji is incarcerated. However, oddly, the film turns out NOT to be a prison film. It's also odd when later a cell-mate appears and then disappears quickly and nothing comes of this! As I said, the film has several subplots that just seemed to fizzle. One interesting aspect of the film, however, was when you learn WHY Kaji's character was in prison and how she deals with making amends for her wicked past. I would have liked to see more of this and why this plot was in a film that essentially becomes a revenge film is odd.
As for most of the rest of the film, lots of low-lifes from the Ginza district of Tokyo make up the movie. While you soon assume that all this will lead to a big showdown with the leader of the Owada clan, the film meanders a bit getting there. There is even a lengthy tense snooker match (snooker?!) that, in the end, NOTHING COMES OF IT! And, soon after, Kaji OUT OF NO WHERE becomes a killing machine along with her male friend. To me, there are just a ton of plot points tossed together haphazardly--and in the end it all boils down to a good old fashioned kill-fest. One that begins with a really, really fake looking rubber hand being stabbed.
If it sounds like I didn't like this film very much, that is correct. I wanted something like Kaji's MUCH better "Lady Snowblood" films but all I got was a dull film with a plot that seemed in need of some editing and polishing.
By the way, the next film in this series has almost nothing to do with "Wandering Ginza Butterfly"! It's not great but it is certainly a big improvement.
Meiko Kaji has been great in a number of films, but even she can't save this film from an uninspired script and wholly lackluster direction. The story is a combination of a womens' "weepie" about the protagonist's trials and tribulations after serving a three-year prison hitch, and though the DVDs packaging would lead one to believe it's an action-packed story about a yakuza chick who's very handy with a sword, there is no action whatsoever until the last ten minutes or so, and what little we get is just not worth the uninvolving buildup. I love Japanese cinema and have endured far worse than WANDERING GINZA BUTTERFLY, but its overwhelming mediocrity dooms it to the "I have better things to do than watch this" category. Skip this and check out Kaji in the vastly superior LADY SNOWBLOOD. You won't be disappointed by that one!
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