Big Time Gambling Boss

by Glenn Erickson Jan 21, 2023

What a discovery . . . I’m glad this was recommended to me. Kôsaku Yamashita’s powerful 1968  drama belongs to the semi-chivalrous ‘honor and code’ yakuza tradition. Crime clan blood brothers Kôji Tsuruta and Tomisaburô Wakayama are good men caught between conflicting loyalties to family, friends, and the yakuza credo. Clashes of honor lead to unavoidable ‘knives out’ confrontations. It’s as intense as the Japanese classics. The extras offer a refresher in yakuza customs and protocol, with expert guidance from Chris D. and Mark Schilling.

Big Time Gambling Boss
Region A + B Blu-ray
Radiance (UK)
1968 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 95 min. / Bakuchiuci: Sôchô Tobaku; Gambling Den: Gambling Boss; The Great Casino; Presidential Gambling Street Date February 1, 2023 / Available from Radiance (UK) / £16.99
Starring: Kôji Tsuruta, Tomisaburô Wakayama, Hiroshi Nawa, Nobuo Kaneko, Hiroko Sakuramachi, Hideto Kagawa, Michiyo Hattori,Shin’ichirô Mikami.
Cinematography: Nagaki Yamagishi
Production Designer/ Art Director: Jirô Tomita
Film Editor: Miyamoto Shinjirô
Original Music: Toshiaki Tsushima
Written by Kazuo Kasahara
Produced by Keiichi Hashimoto, Kôji Shundô
Directed by
Kôsaku Yamashita

There’s nothing like encountering a great new movie out of the blue. Our familiarity with yakuza films was formed by violent 1970s pictures like Fukusaku’s Battles without Honor and Humanity series. Taking place in postwar Occupied Japan, Battles reveals that the traditional yakuza creed of loyalty and tradition is no more. The story is one craven betrayal after another.

But the yakuza code was everything in earlier yakuza pictures. In these thrillers Japanese organized crime followed a formal chivalric pattern, with a ‘loser’ hero trying to uphold the code despite personal conflicts. Relationships and protocol are everything; the consequences for missteps are daunting.

We were also influenced by Sydney Pollack’s excellent 1975 hybrid The Yakuza, starring America’s Robert Mitchum opposite Japan’s superstar Ken Takakura. Despite its latter-day stylized slash & slice swordplay and added ‘international’ sentiment, The Yakuza pays its respects to the older rites of yakuza honor. Again, the real conflict in traditional yakuza dramas pictures is between heroes trying to play by the code, and opportunist scum that cheat.


What makes Big Time Gambling Boss so refreshingly different?  Although filmed in 1968 it tilts in the direction of pre-revisionist traditions. It’s not outrageously violent, at a time when action films were beginning to hype the bloodletting to lure Japanese audiences back into theaters. The extras on Radiance’s disc say that the Japanese film industry began to shrink at the time of the 1964 Olympics. The games apparently spurred a big rush to buy television sets.

Big Time Gambling Boss is a superior drama with compelling characters we can identify with. It develops a believable tension about the yakuza way of life in transition. Yes, unscrupulous new powers are shifting what was originally a gambling and vice operation into drugs and gun-running — and also into reactionary politics (shudder). It’s a period picture set in pre-war 1935, and some enterprising bosses want to expand operations to ‘the continent’ — apparently occupied Manchuria.

The formal yakuza traditions are still being honored. Clan meetings look like courtly proceedings from period costume dramas. The characters must work out their problems from inside a web of conflicting loyalties. Our honorable, level-headed hero knows he’s a criminal, yet is also an idealist. He believes that clan loyalty should supersede personal desire. But in the real world, family ties and personal oaths get in the way. The storyline is built on character relationships, which just can’t be predicted. More than one main character can’t control his emotional outbursts — and the villains are too smart to telegraph their evil-doing.


Tokyo, 1935. A yakuza clan’s big boss suffers a stroke, and choosing his successor is complicated. The next in line Tetsuo Matsuda (Tomisaburô Wakayama) is finishing a prison term, so is unavailable. His blood-brother Shinjirô Nakai (Kôji Tsuruta) declines out of respect, but also because he feels technically unqualified: he came to the clan from the outside. The pushy advisor Senba (Nobuo Kaneko)  insists that the younger, less experienced Kôhei Ishido (Hiroshi Nawa) take the position. All seems well until Matsuda is released. He returns to his long-suffering wife Hiroe (Junko Fuji), his young son and his personal retainers, that include Oto (Shin’ichirô Mikami).

The calm is broken as soon as Matsuda learns of the unorthodox succession. He’s furious that he wasn’t consulted. Nakai appeals to reason but even he can’t keep the peace when Matsuda flies off the handle. Time and again Nakai and Hiroe intercede, but it’s no use. Worse, Matsuda is being manipulated by other forces, conspiring against the clan.


Unlike action-oriented yakuza thrillers, the progressive conflicts aren’t restricted to violent retaliations — people do frightening things, even commit suicide, over principles of honor. A fine script and Kôsaku Yamashita’s clear, sympathetic direction raise the level of emotional involvement. It really boils down to character as defined by yakuza loyalty. Had Nakai adjusted his high ideals and just accepted the role of boss at the outset, the trouble with Matsuda would have been avoided. But the schemer-manipulators behind the scenes would still be a problem . . .


This reviewer’s recommendation doesn’t come with citations of  ‘gotta see it’  scenes;  the show in its entirety is what so strongly appeals. It’s talky, but it develops into an intriguing puzzle of conflicting ironies and challenging situations. An underling’s actions have resulted in the death of a boss’s wife. He comes to a rainy funeral to plead for forgiveness. Instead of gruesome retaliation, the forlorn widower gives the guilty man his umbrella. It’s an unusually sensitive & telling moment.

The film has a number of scenes with knives, but dispenses with ‘master swordsman’ bravado — the killings are ugly and messy. We also expect the finale to work a variation on a standard scene of bloody retribution, with ‘honor’ restored even if most everybody dies. Big Time Gambling Boss spins in a slightly different direction.

Fans will be interested in the presence of Tomisaburô Wakayama, the star of the popular, bloody Lone Wolf and Cub series. As ‘Ogami Itto’ Wakayama hardened his face into a mask, as if channeling the hard-ass stare of Charles Bronson. In Big Time he’s much more emotional, the kind of guy who says he’ll behave, and then flies off the handle at the worst possible time.


Star Kôji Tsuruta has presence and authority to spare. His face expresses intelligence and concern, and the same kind of decent caution we remember from actor Ken Takakura. Before settling in as an all-star yakuza specialist Tsuruta played in a wide variety of pictures: Ozu’s The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice, Jun Fukuda’s The Secret of the Telegian, and later, Father of the Kamikaze.

Director Yamashita is a master of dynamic ‘scope compositions; he goes lean on the close-ups. Scenes are truly directed, not ‘covered.’ Some vintage automobiles let us know that the period isn’t the present-day. The yakuza dress in a mix of traditional and western clothing. Organized crime pictures tend to mirror normal corporate business practices, and Big Time Gambling Boss is no exception. Crooks and businessmen alike hoard information, plot against competitors and take advantage of people. We’re frankly surprised when Nakai and Matsuda refrain from self-justifications. Even the hearty Matsuda is quick to describe his yakuza life as essentially wrong:

“Look, we’re not saints or gods. We’re thugs.”



Radiance’s Region A + B Blu-ray of Big Time Gambling Boss is an excellent transfer with bright color, good contrast and no dings or dirt. Newer encodings of Japanese movies have been correcting the color bias of some earlier DVDs, which tended to be milky and greenish. I was once assured that this came about because Japanese analog TVs were calibrated differently. Colors here are clean, and when a shot is meant to be murky, it’s allowed to be murky.

Radiance’s packaging is standard with the exception of paper inserts familiar from various record albums, for information about the disc. This time through I read the company’s explanation as to why — the ‘sash’ insert leaves the actual keep case art free from text clutter.

Last month we reviewed the company’s The Working Class Goes to Heaven; this presentation’s extras are equally helpful. Between Stuart Galbraith IV, Chris D. and Mark Schilling, all academic-historical bases are covered. Galbraith’s insert text essay regards Big Time through the career of its director Kôsaku Yamashita, a lesser-known name. Shilling’s 15-minute video essay is a well-illustrated run-through of the yakuza basics, touching on samurai films too. We even see an excerpt of a silent samurai thriller. He explains the organization of a yakuza clan, before describing how hundreds of yakuza thrillers from multiple Japanese studios manage variations on a genre with such rigid rules.


Chris D. takes 25 minutes to analyze Big Time and a number of other related pictures. The reason I didn’t find this show right away in Chris’s book is that it’s the fourth installment in a ten-film Toei ‘Gambling Den’ series, and alphabetized under that prefix. From the description given and the film clips offered of the other films in the series, we respect Big Time even more — it doesn’t suffer from exaggerated sentimentalism or scenes of comedy relief, which Chris says show up all too often.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Big Time Gambling Boss
Region A + B Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
New video Essays:
Serial Gambling by Chris D., author of Gun and Sword: An Encyclopedia of Japanese Gangster Films 1955-1980 (25 min.)
Ninkyo 101 by Mark Schilling, author of The Yakuza Movie Book (15 min.)
Still Gallery, Trailer
Illustrated 26-page insert booklet with an essay by Stuart Galbraith IV and notes by Hayley Scanlon.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
January 18, 2023

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.

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