Wandering Ginza Butterfly (Gincho wataridori) was one of Meiko Kaji’s first films for Toei Studios after leaving Nikkatsu, where she’d starred in the very successful Stray Cat Rock series. While the plot synopsis might make it sound like a pinky violence movie, in fact it’s much more of a traditional Japanese yakuza movie.
Kaji is Nami, a former girl gang leader serving a prison sentence for murdering a yakuza boss. After being released she gets a job as a hostess in a hostess bar. She’s filled with remorse for her crime, and determined to make amends to the dead man’s widow. She meets Ryuji (Tsunehiko Watase), a likeable rogue who’s a borderline yakuza but basically a good guy. She’s doing OK, she’s very successful as a hostess and she also has a considerable talent for collecting debts from recalcitrant customers.
Unfortunately her life starts to get complicated when a particularly vicious gangster named Owada tries to take over the bar where she works. He’s holding a phoney debt over the head of the mama-san, and since the mama-san has treated Nami decently she’s anxious to help her to save the bar. Ryuji is keen to help as well, being rather sweet on Nami, while they have another ally in the mama-san’s boyfriend Shin. Shin is a disreputable enough character in his own way, but like Ryuji (and Nami for that matter) he’s essentially decent. So we have a contrast set up between Owada and his gang on one side, who are simply thugs, and on the other side Nami, Ryuji and Shin, who are or have been petty criminals but with a code of honour.
Nami also happens to be a very skillful billiards player (her uncle is a pool-hall hustler from way back), so she challenges Owada. She will take on his champion player. If she loses, Owada will get her uncle’s property; if she wins, Owada will give up his claim on the bar. The billiards duel is filmed very stylishly and is the highlight of the movie. Of course it all gets more complicated, and eventually Nami is forced to resort to violence. The bad guys discover that if it’s foolish to take on Nami on the billiards table it’s even more foolish to mess with her with cold steel! The final showdown, with Meiko Kaji in a kimono wielding a sword (even though the movie is set in 1970s Tokyo) gives director Kazuhiko Yamaguchi an opportunity for another very impressive visual set-piece, a frenetic mix of swordplay and gunplay.
Apart from the ending there’s surprisingly little violence, and even more surprisingly for a 1971 Japanese exploitation movie there’s no sex or nudity at all. In fact the film has a rather old-fashioned feel, more like the Japanese movies of the 60s. Which is not necessarily a bad thing. What it lacks in violence it makes up for in human drama. It also gives Meiko Kaji the chance to do a lot more acting than in her later movies, and she produces one of her best performances. Nami is an engaging mix of toughness and tenderness. And she gets to wear some great 70s clothes in this one! Tsunehiko Watase is also impressive. In fact the acting overall is extremely good.
The plot follows the established formula for a yakuza movie but it’s executed with style and elegance and the actors are good enough to breathe life into what could have been rather cliched characters. There’s plenty of fun to be had, the comic relief is done reasonably well, and while there are moments of sentimentality they’re handled with sufficient skill not to become annoying.
Synapse’s DVD presentation is impressive and includes some worthwhile extras. As long as you accept that this is not an actual pinky violence movie then there’s plenty of entertainment to be found here. There was a sequel, with the delightful title Wandering Ginza Butterfly 2: She-Cat Gambler.
Wandering Ginza Butterfly is certainly an absolute must for Meiko Kaji fans.