Director Kōsaku Yamashita’s 1968 crime drama “Big Time Gambling Boss” releases on Blu-ray for the first-time via Radiance Films.

In the world of boutique cinema home releases, there is Arrow Video, Synapse, Vinegar Syndrome, The Criterion Collection, and, now, Radiance films. Built by 12-year Arrow Video veteran Francesco Simeoni, Radiance Films is a brand-new boutique, offering films, books, and other merchandise for a variety of genres and source origins. If your sole interests are the films, they can be purchased individually or in bundles, though the ones on the site are region-coded for the U.K. (Region B), so any U.S.-based buyers interested in snagging a film must either have a Region B or Region-Free player *or* will need to go to a distributing partner like MVD Entertainment Group, Diabolik, or Grindhouse Video. Currently, their line-up includes films like Red Sun (1970), Miami Blues (1990), Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995), and, as of January 17th, director Kōsaku Yamashita’s 1968 crime drama Big Time Gambling Boss (博奕打ち 総長賭), a first-time ever Blu-ray release. This 2K restoration includes two brand-new featurettes exploring the yakuza genre of Japanese cinema, specifically the ninkyo eiga subgenre (known as chivalry films), as well as the theatrical trailer and original promotional stills.

Pre-World War II Japan. When clan boss Arakawa (suffers a stroke and is unable to continue leading, a successor is determined. The first to be selected is Nakai (Koji Tsuruta), except originally came from an outside organization and declines based on the code the gang follows. Next for consideration is Matsuda (Tomisaburō Wakayama), except he’s in jail and the council refuses to wait for his upcoming parole. Finally, a third name is considered, son-in-law to the boss Ishido (Hiroshi Nawa), and confirmed. Soon after, Matsuda is released and his pride won’t allow the formerly lower-level member Ishido to jump the ranks. Despite Nakai trying to reason with Matsuda, hoping their brotherhood can dampen his rising frustration and cool his resolve, as the retirement party for Arakawa and coronation for Ishido gets closer, hidden forces do what they can to continually undermine the peace.

Let’s first establish what a ninkyo eiga film is — it’s a story that explores the struggle that lies between the self and duty. Within the context of Big Time Gambling Boss, screenwriter Kazuo Kasahara (Battles Without Honor and Humanity) utilizes the characters of Nakai, Matusda, and Ishido to deftly investigate the virtues and weaknesses of such a lifestyle. Nakai knows that he’s the appropriate person to take over when Arakawa takes ill, as do all the other members in consult, yet he doesn’t because the *correct* thing, the thing in line with the code of their clan, is that someone who originally came from a different clan cannot become boss. He’s aware of this and Tsuruta does a heartbreaking job conveying the sacrifice of self he makes in order to continue the tradition instilled in him by Arakawa, a man Nakai states saved him from prison, among other things. Between his personal code and that of the clan, despite his own misgivings, he works hard to keep the peace. To create opposition and space to explore the difficulty of living a life by a strict code, Matsuda is a character defined by his pride constructed by the same code Nakai serves.Adding some flames, Matsuda struggles with the realization that someone several ranks lower than he (Ishido) is now the new head of the clan. Wakayama’s performance conveys the conflict within him between what’s best for the clan versus what’s right, perhaps the best illustration of the battle fought between self and duty. Nakai is clearly our story’s central figure, the whole time grappling with what he should do, toeing the line almost entirely throughout the film; but it’s Matsuda – passionate and prideful as he is – who can’t seem to find his balance either. Though, there is perhaps an argument to be made that it’s Matsuda who is most right, it’s merely his methods that draw the ire of the people behind the new boss and his impatience and unwillingness to listen to Nakai that generates the tension and action of the film. Even when audiences realize exactly what’s happening, Kasahara maintains tension through the unpredictability and often heartbreaking nature of the narrative. Deals are made, lines are crossed, brotherhoods destroyed, and, shock among shocks, it’s all about money and expansion at the expense of breaking the code. What fascinates the most is how the film ends with text informing the audience of Nakai’s fate, a cruel ending for a man who tried his best, within a system that allowed for malice and bloodshed, to exist honorably among his friends and enemies. The ultimate betrayal may not surprise, but that the message seems to be that even those who manage to balance duty and self are potential victims to those who would take advantage. The honorable cannot survive where the dishonorable thrive.

As for the restoration itself, we turn to the liner notes within the retail copy provided by MVD. It appears that original production/distribution company Toei Company Ltd. provided to Radiance films a digital file of Big Time Gambling Boss in the original aspect ratio and mono audio. Other than it stating “Big Time Gambling Boss was transferred in High Definition by Toei …” there’s no explanation of the source material nor the process used to create this restoration. What can be noticed is that the on-disc presentation, while not the prettiest or most time-transcendent cinematic experience, creates a sensation of finding something broadcast on television on an obscure channel, the source material feeling its age without losing any of vitality. The dialogue is crisp, the music is clear without clipping, and the video elements don’t feel so much fresh as comfortably worn. There’s an argument to be made (The Cine-Men co-host Darryl Mansel makes it frequently) that a restoration which strips the film of its anchor in time (artifacts, grain, errors in sound or video, shifting the color grade of images) can also strip away what makes the film special. My feelings on restorations is that it should enhance what’s there without taking away the intent of the director, his cinematographer, and other members of the creative team. The recent Dragons Forever 4K UHD restoration from 88 Films is a strong example of this, as the on-disc presentation removes none of the feeling of the 1988 release while cleaning it up via adding HDR and providing a new audio mix. In comparison, the shift in color grading on The Shawshank Redemption (1994) released in 2021 actually changes the feeling of specific scenes, some for the better and others for the worse. Back to this HD restoration, Big Time Gambling Boss maintains its charms by not being the cleanest version of itself, but maintaining the feeling one might get from seeing it in the theater in 1968, or, at the very least, the exciting feeling of discovery that so often comes from finding a film broadcasting on a channel with low video definition, as one might’ve when before the HD boom.

As for the special features, Big Time Gambling Boss or yakuza enthusiasts can enjoy one of two brand-new (recorded in 2022) featurettes to enhance the home viewing experience. The first comes from Chris D., the author of Gun and Sword: An Encyclopedia of Japanese Gangster Films 1955-1980 who, over 25 minutes, offers a great deal of context regarding yakuza films, the work of Yamashita, and Big Time Gambling Boss. As D. himself states, if you haven’t see Big Time Gambling Boss yet, view this *after* watching the film in order to avoid spoilers. The second on-disc featurette is a nearly-15-minute video essay titled “Ninkyo 101” from author Mark Schilling in which the audience is taken on a deep dive of the yakuza genre with a special look at Kasahara’s screenwriting legacy. These are the only two on-disc special features of note, with the remaining two being a 12-second image gallery and a three-minute trailer. For additional insight into the film, buyers will need to turn to the aforementioned liner notes which include the as-mentioned transfer details, cast and crew information, and two brief essays from Stuart Galbraith IV and Hayley Scanlon, respectively. The first offers historical context of the film, while the second provides professional breakdowns (with personal reactions) of three of the films cast. Be advised that Radiance Film’s website indicates that their edition of Big Time Gambling Boss is limited to 2,000 copies, should you want to get this specific booklet and the reversible cover.

Entertainment, no matter how we like to forget it, is a business. Sure, it’s a patron of the arts, but it’s literally only funding arts which can turn a solid profit and will be shut down immediately if it won’t pad the bottom line. Writers, directors, and creatives of all kinds are at the literal mercy of CEOs and financial analysts who get to determine what is made available, what gets to be renewed, and what will disappear, never to be seen again. We see this as WB Discovery removes material from their streaming services (likely to avoid residual payments) or the outright cancellation of completed or nearly-completed projects (Batgirl/Scoob!: Holiday Haunt). AMC+ and Netflix just announced several more of their own projects that won’t continue (including one with a finished second season that won’t air). The point, dear reader, is that without some kind of archiving, these projects are going to disappear forever. Granted, there’s a history of studios destroying material rather than preserving it, but preservation on the scale we see now with the advent of home video (far more than streaming would have viewers believe) is positively astounding, creating opportunities for films thought lost or contained within specific communities or cultures can finally get out into other parts of the world. We see this with select Arrow Video releases and, now, thanks to new boutique Radiance Films, physical media proponents and cinephiles have a different place to seek out stories they may have missed.

Big Time Gambling Boss Special Features:

  • High Definition digital transfer of the film
  • Uncompressed mono PCM audio
  • Serial Gambling: A video essay by Chris D., author of Gun and Sword: An Encyclopedia of Japanese Gangster Films 1955-1980, on Big Time Gambling Boss‘s origins in the Toei studio’s serialized yakuza movie production and what sets the film apart (2022) (25:25)
  • Ninkyo 101: In this video essay, Mark Schilling, author of The Yakuza Movie Book, delves into the history and impact of the classical style of yakuza film, the ninkyo eiga or “chivalry films” (2022) (14:36)
  • Gallery of original promotional stills (0:12)
  • Trailer (3:08)
  • Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by maarko phntm
  • Limited edition booklet featuring new writing on the film by author Stuart Galbraith IV, and critic Hayley Scanlon
  • Limited edition of 2000 copies, presented in full-height Scanavo packaging with removable OBI strip leaving packaging free of certificates and markings

Available in the U.S. January 17th, 2023.

For more information, head to Radiance Films’s Big Time Gambling Boss webpage.

To purchase, head to MVD Entertainment Group.


Categories: Films To Watch, Home Release, Home Video, Recommendation, Reviews

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