Wandering Ginza Butterfly (1971)
Director: Kazuhiko Yamaguchi
Writers: Kazuhiko Yamaguchi, Isao Matsumoto
Starring: Meiko Kaji and Tsunehiko Watase

The Plot: Nami the Cherryblossom has been released from prison after serving her time peacefully. Although we do not know what she was incarcerated for, we do see that she is deeply remourseful upon her return. While riding home on the train, she is grabbed by and forced to kiss a strange man, who is apparently being hunted by the yakuza. The kiss allows for the stranger to avoid his criminal persuers, and we soon find out that he is the notorious conman Shin, who is currently being tracked by the yakuza for writing a forged check. He thanks Nami for the kiss, and tells her to meet him in Ginza when she needs a friend. Nami seems to have different motives for visiting Ginza however, as she is quickly on the track of a woman named Saeko Yajima. We do not know who Saeko is, but she apparently pleaded for Nami’s sentence to be lightened and she is the main reason that Nami is back on the streets. Nami doesn’t want to approach the woman herself, so instead she sends the young pimp Ryuji (played by Tsunehiko Watase, from Terrifying Girls’ High School: Lynch Law Classroom) who gives her envelopes full of money on Nami’s behalf, money that she earns while working as a hostess alongside Ryuji’s friends. It isn’t long before the local yakuza begin to push in on everyone in this small community however, and they soon want a piece of the poolhall that Nami’s uncle owns. What will Nami do, who is Saeko and how will all of these loose ends resolve themselves?

The Review
Although I had initially put off exploring the pinky violence genre for a very long time, I now count it as one of my favorite areas of film. Similar to the Giallo and Kung Fu genres, no matter how similar the movies may ultimately be, as a cohesive whole I can never truly grow tired of these films. Although I don’t imagine I’ll ever see the day, but if I ever come to the point where I have actually seen all of the genre, then I imagine I’ll suffer from a bout of depression. As it is, there are dozens of movies I need to track down and there are likely dozens more that I’m not even vaguely aware of due to my not speaking Japanese. Wandering Ginza Butterfly is a title that has been picking up steam in recent years due to Meiko Kaji’s recent popularity in the west (thanks in no small part to Quentin Tarantino’s adoration being so publicized in his Kill Bill series), and this new-found popularity is most assuredly well deserved. A film that can be categorized as pinky violence due to the surrounding circumstances of our characters, Wandering Ginza Butterfly is a film that delves into various concepts and genre archetypes, but still retains a very emotional drama at its core.
This film marks Meiko Kaji’s first real film produced by Toei, who are known as the creators and owners of the pinky violence genre as we have come to know it. At the time Kaji had recently left the company which had made her a star, Nikkatsu, due to conflicts that arose from their headfirst dive into the new genre of roman porno. When Kaji made the jump to Toei she had already become a popular figure due to her role in the Stray Cat Rock series about juvenile bad girls, so when she came to Toei who specialized in this style of film, everything seemed to make sense. Wandering Ginza Butterfly is not a film that easily slides into the role of your generic pinky violence film. Granted, it does feature several staples of the genre throughout its running time. We have a women’s-prison sequence, as so many of these movies often do. We have the outrageous fashion and style of the era, and we also have a group of women being oppressed by the male yakuza authority. This is all expected within the genre, but the exploitation factor is toned down a bit here and the characterization steps up to the plate in order to deliver a much stronger and more passionate entry into the genre.

The first thing that may grab you is the use of comedy throughout the movie. This is not the sexy, nor deathly serious, take on the “action film” that the pinky violence genre usually entails. Meiko Kaji herself is best known for her incredibly distant and disillusioned characters, who more often than not stood around giving icy stares at any male that crossed her path. This does not prove to be the case with Wandering Ginza Butterfly. Showcasing a bevy of talents that many might not be aware that she actually had, Meiko Kaji is both dynamic in her comedic offerings as well as her general sweetness. That’s right, Meiko Kaji is a sweet and naive young girl in this film, and she even smiles! A lot! I could hardly believe that myself. Kaji stretches out moreso than she has in any role I have ever seen her in, including her well rounded turn in Blind Woman’s Curse. This character Nami is both street wise, hustling pool games seems to be her specialty, but she also has a very naive persona. Her “aww shucks!” personality gives the character life. Not just because this is Meiko Kaji playing against type, but the character in general is against type due to how common it was for these delinquent girl films to feature rigid and tough women in the lead.
The film has an interesting pace to it and almost becomes slightly episodic in its nature. We are left unsure at times just where the movie is taking us, but director Kazuhiko Yamaguchi does a solid job in providing enough structure that the film doesn’t lose its grasp on the audience. Partly your generic pinky violence stable of cliches, partly a poolhall hustling feature and partly a very odd romance: whatever you want it to be, it seems Wandering Ginza Butterfly will get the job done. While the movie doesn’t actually turn out to be one of my favorites (spoiler alert?), it does have a style that is reminiscent of favorite films of the genre. Similar to films such as Stray Cat Rock: Delinquent Girll Boss, Wandering Ginza Butterfly isn’t merely simple exploitation. It includes these strange elements, such as the reverence paid to the classic Paul Newman film The Hustler (another poolhall hustling classic, the poster for said film can be seen in the background during several scenes), and then eschews the cornucopia of nudity that is expected of the genre. Disappointing for some, but I enjoy the craftiness that comes into play when any exploitation title tries to reach outside of its own boundaries. While it may not work to complete brilliance here, the reason that Wandering Ginza Butterfly is still worth talking about at this point certainly comes from its genre bending departures.

There is a pool sequence during the third act of the film that can only be described as tremendous. In the midst of this back and forth, and relatively average, piece of yakuza cinema, there comes this really well paced and intense game of pool that seems to decide the fate of our entire cast. The sequence is incredibly well edited, and the plot up until this point puts so much emphasis on the game that the drama becomes ramped up beyond anything I could have expected. I won’t promise that every viewer will take away the same experience, but I certainly couldn’t help but finally find my own love for the movie at this point. Director Kazuhiko Yamaguchi isn’t held in the same regard as many of his fellow contemporaries, but he shows here that he was certainly capable of great things.

The Conclusion
The problems I have with Wandering Ginza Butterfly are the same things that many others will have with it as well, the loss of steam as it goes along. To be honest, in retrospect the only things you are likely to remember about the movie after watching will be the double whammy that comes from the deciding game of pool and the kinetic and violent conclusion to the movie. I won’t go into detail concerning the violent finale, but indeed the film does finally find its exploitation foothold as death is certainly handed out. These two sequences are done in superb fashion, but so much of the middle seems to drag. Overall, I have to say I enjoyed the movie but it ultimately becomes filler amongst the pinky violence titles I have seen. I give the movie a solid three out of four. It’s worth checking out, but it isn’t one of the best films the genre has produced.

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