Red Peony Gambler


Director: Norifumi Suzuki

Reviewed by Paghat the Ratgirl

Gambler's ObligationIn the second Red Peony Gambler feature film Hibotan Bakuto: Ishuku ippan, (Red Peony 2: Gambler's Obligation, Toei, 1968), Oryu has taken "lodging for a night" at a yakuza boss's house in the silk manufacturing town of Tomioka. She is called "Aunt Oryu" by the oyabun's son, & in general seems really to be part of the family, rather than just a wanderer on her training journey.

When a wanderer stays with an oyabun, she or he acquires an "obligation" in trade for a night's lodging, & this aspect of yakuza culture is a focal point of Oryu's adventure. When staying with an oyabun who is not chivalrous, this obligation can lead to terrible consequences of duty conflicting with humanity, but Togasaki is a very chivalrous oyabun & Oryu would eagerly assist him in any endeavor.

Oryu competes with hanafuda cards in the gambling den against another famous woman gambler, Ren (Mari Shiraki), a butch girl whose full body tattoo of chrysanthemums & the dragon-quelling goddess Benten is even more extreme than Oryu's peony tattoo. Benten protects the underclasses, including yakuza.

Ren supports her greatly loved but weak husband who doesn't even known how to gamble despite living in his wife's gambling world. This is a gender roll reversal of the strong woman protecting her devoted man, but anyone familiar with lowkey "meiji mono" domestic dramas set in the Meiji era will recognize the devoted but ineffectual husband as a stock character, given a new context as a woman gambler's sweetheart.

Gambler's ObligationRen is jealous of Oryu's greater fame & will not withdraw from the game even when she is swiftly losing the large pile of winnings she had gained before Oryu's arrival.

Her husband tries to get her to withdraw, but due to pride, she loses everything. In consequence will soon find herself having to work as a dealer for the town's evil oyabun Kasamatsu (Bin Amatsu), & having to accept being his mistress. This situation rankles & heightens her anger with Oryu.

A ferocious loan shark, Gusuke Kuramochi, has bought up & centralized all the local farmers' loans, raised the interest, & begins maltreating the peasants in numerous ways. Two years of bad mulberry harvests have indebted many in the town, as good mulberry crops go hand in hand with good silkworm production. Kuramochi is in cahoots with the evil oyabun Kasamatsu, who intends eventually taking over the silk industry by making it impossible for debts to be repaid.

When Oryu's friend, the good oyabun Togasaki, realizes he & his men have no choice but to make a raid on the rival gangster's household, he first tells Oyru she must take an important message to a mutual friend in her home town, & she must do it quickly.

She suspects she is being gotten rid of so that Togasaki will not have to involve her in welling troubles. She tells him that even though she has only been in his house for ten days, she admires him & is willing to help him. He insists that her obligation is to fulfill his request that she hastily deilver the message.

When she arrives in her home town there is a long "comic relief" interlude pretty much starring Tomisaburo Wakayama in his recurring role as Kumatora, a clownish workers' boss with a ridiculous mustache & freckles.

Gambler's ObligationWakayama by right of his "Lone Wolf with Child" & other great films is well known as one of the finest chambara actors who ever lived, & I must admit it bothers me a bit that he is mainly a clown in the Red Peony series, more exaggeratedly so in the second film than in the first, his freckles having gotten bigger & his mustache sillier than in the first film.

Still, one has to admire his abilities as an actor to be the dignified ultimate swordsman Ogami Otto in the Lone Wolf/Baby-cart movies, then be Oryu's goofy good-natured friend in the Red Peony movies.

The "important" message she delivered was nothing but a "hi & how are you" letter, & soon the news arrives that Togasaki attempted a raid on Kasamatsu's house, but bought-off policemen had lain in wait & shot him dead before he & his men could get inside his rival's house.

A novice yakuza-eiga fan may not realize that this is the telling moment when Oryu's "gambler's obligation" heightens, but the devottee of the genre has known that this was the inevitable plot-line development. The chivalrous oyabun essentially saved Oryu's life by sending her away rather than taking advantage of her initial night's lodging obligation. And now it is her obligation to set things right & stop the rise of the evil oyabun so that Togasaki's death will not go unavenged or the bad guys unchallenged.

Gambler's ObligationThe evil rival is now in line to take over more gambling territory, but it has to be cleared through a gathering of top godfathers in Tokyo.

Oryu shows up to appear before the meeting of oyabuns & gives an impassioned speech about yakuza who do not abide by the moral code of their society, without which code yakuza truly do become the scum of the earth. She wins them over for a while, but behind-the-scenes machinations & bribes get the bad guy exactly what he wants.

Before Oryu leaves Tokyo, she is attacked by a group of yakuza led by her enemy's first lieutenant, played by Bunta Sugawara who is capable of making quite a scary impression whenever he plays a vicioius gangster. She fights first with her umbrella, using judo to fend off multiple knife attackers. But when Bando steps forth with longsword, it looks like tough Oryu with just her tanto knife might be in trouble.

It is then that Koji Tsuruta as Shutaro Kazama enters the story, an arch-heroic type yakuza with sad face, sorry to have become well known as Shutaro the Killer. Facing off Bunta, he promises to stab him in the heart even as the villain's sword reaches him, so they can die together. The bad guys withdraw, & Tsuruta's character will soonafter return to his own home town of Tomioka, to help Oryu overcome the loan sharks.

Strangely enough, Oryu's patience has not yet reached its end. The late boss Togasaki had only one surviving follower, his daughter's fiance Yukichi (Kunio Murata). Oryu visits Kasamatsu's gambling house quite menacingly & is challenged to a "duel" of dice. It is now that the rival woman gambler Ren is brought out with instructions to defeat Oryu even if it is necessary to cheat. When Oryu detects the cheating, & wins the game by default, Kasamatsu is left honor-bound by the code of the yakuza to do what Oryu has requested.

Ren will be tortured for cheating unsuccessfully & her ineffectual husband will finally act, only to get himself beaten as well. They escape, Ren practically carrying her weak husband despite their mutual injuries. They get away successfully with Oryu's assistance.

The bad guy is constitutionally incapable of adhering to the code of gamblers & proceeds to do everything bad that his dicing loss meant he could not do. He tricks the late good oyabun's daughter into signing over her family carriage business to her father's rival. Even then he's not done with her, deciding to rape her before letting her go. He then kills her fiance.

It's high time Oryu ran out of patience. She sets out to raid the evil boss's headquarters, & is joined en route by Koji Tsuruta. He begins killing bad guys with his shortsword while Oryu guns them down. When the gun is knocked from her hand by Bunta's sword, she continues fighting with her tanto knife.

A coda to the excellent choreography for the last-reel fight action provides an opportunity for Junko Fuji to show that she is a skilled taiko drummer, a skill itself usually identified with masculine strength.

The first episode of the Red Peony series was a great beginning. The second film is just as good, but with harsher action & outcomes. The third film will prove even better thanks to the exceptionally artistic cinmatic eye of director Tai Kato. Koji Tsuruta & Ken Takakura will continue to trade off being different leading men, & the decision to have them as recurring actors but not recurring characters may take some adjustment if viewing the series in quick succession.
copyright by Paghat the Ratgirl

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