Big Time Gambling Boss
Tokyo, 1934. Gang boss Arakawa is too ill and a successor must be named. The choice falls on Nakai, but being an outsider he refuses and suggests senior clansman Matsuda instead. But Matsuda is in jail and the elders won’t wait for his release, so they appoint the younger and more malleable Ishido to take the reins. Clan honour and loyalties are severely tested when Matsuda is released, resulting in an increasingly violent internal strife. An atmospheric tale of gangland intrigue written by Kazuo Kasahara (Battles Without Honour and Humanity) and starring Tomisaburo Wakayama, (Lone Wolf and Cub, The Bounty Hunter Trilogy) and genre legend Koji Tsuruta, Big Time Gambling Boss is one of the all-time classics of the yakuza genre. Paul Schrader called it the richest and most complex film of its type, while novelist Yukio Mishima hailed it as a masterpiece. Radiance Films is proud to present this crucial re-discovery for the first time ever on Blu-ray.
Kosaku Yamashita’s Big Time Gambling Boss receives a new Blu-ray edition through Radiance and is presented here on a dual-layer disc with a 1080p/24hz high-definition encode in the aspect ratio of 2.35:1. I should note that I did do QC work on this title, limited more to the technical functionality of the disc.
Despite Radiance working with what is clearly an older master that is more than likely sourced from an interpositive (though I don’t know for sure) the end results do manage to impress. Grain can be a bit iffy, admittedly, and I will say it looks good much of the time, yet there are plenty of instances where it can have a slight noisy look as it dances around, something that I’m sure is baked into the master. Thankfully the excellent encode doesn’t exasperate the issue, and the lack of filtering helps to retain some of the finer details in the image. Also worth noting is how scenes taking place in the rain or fog manage to blend these elements cleanly, no super-obvious artifacts or blocking patterns popping up.
Colours look to be saturated well, even if the colour scheme of the film is mostly neutral outside of a few pops of red, while black levels come out pretty strong for the most part; there are a handful of darker shots where they can come out a bit mushy with limited shadow detail. The restoration work has cleaned things up decently enough, though a few minor specs and bits of debris pop up throughout. There is also a bit of a pulse or flicker present a good amount of the time.
Still, on the whole, the image manages to be quite pleasing and even retains a film-like look much of the time. It’s remarkable considering what they had to work with.
The Japanese soundtrack, presented in lossless single-channel PCM, also ends up being a bit of a surprise. There’s some modest range to be found in the music and sound effects (a sequence in a cemetery while it’s raining sounds especially good), and voices are clear and sharp. Damage is also not an issue and it does not sound as though any excessive filtering has been performed.
The film receives a modest special edition, Radiance including a couple of new video essays created exclusively for this edition. The first, by Mark Schilling and entitled Ninyo 101, provides a 15-minute deep-dive into the history of the Yakuza in film. Schilling starts things off by going over the origins of the Yakuza before moving on to the gang’s representation in Japanese cinema, first as a subset of the Samurai genre before the war to the more modern gangster films following it, starting with Akira Kurosawa’s Drunken Angel. The essay even looks into their mass production during the Japanese straight-to-video wave of the 90’s (from the likes of Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Takashi Miike) and goes over how styles and stories adjusted to the time periods. It’s a very brief piece but is still fairly dense and effectively edited, hitting a number of key points.
The second essay, by Chris D. and called Serialized Gambling, is focused more on Big Time Gambling Boss with mention of the follow-up films The Biggest Gamble and The Drifting Gambler. The essay first explores Toei’s serialized film output and how the Gambling films were part of these then offers a look at what made the film unique compared to the studio’s other output. It even takes the time to go over Yamashita as a filmmaker, exploring some of his other works and getting into his strengths and weaknesses. Interestingly D. even brings up Yamashita’s postwar set remake of Gambling Boss, Greatest Postwar Gamble. I’m assuming Radiance was unable to release a set with the other films but getting this excellent overview of them (running a quick 25-minutes) does fill in this gap humbly enough.
The disc then closes with a small gallery (featuring a few production photos, lobby cards and a poster) and the film’s original trailer. The limited edition also comes with a 27-page booklet featuring an excellent and lengthy essay Stuart Galbraith IV covering the film, its production and director Yamashita, even providing quotes from the filmmaker and others. Hayley Scanion also provides background information for a few of the film’s stars: Koji Tsuruta, Tomisaburo Wakayama and Nobio Kaneko. These are surprisingly in-depth and not just IMDB summaries.
All around it’s not a stacked edition but I suspect there was very little available when it comes to archival material. At the very least we get two nicely edited video essays exploring the film and the Yakuza genre, along with wonderfully assembled booklet.
Not a stacked edition but Radiance throws in some excellent special features that contextualize the film and its respective genre to the period while also providing a solid presentation for the film, despite a dated master.