Director: Kazuhiko Yamaguchi
Synapse Films

Back in 2006, the long defunct and sorely missed Panik House label announced a partnership with Synapse Films in which the two genre driven outfits would collaborate on the release of seven Toei films. Despite the demise of Panik House, Synapse has thankfully held true to their word, releasing the promised titles over the last few years, much to the adulation of many an Asian cult cinema fan. Having already dropped impressive transfers of the three LEGENDS OF THE POISONOUS SEDUCTRESS series of films, FEMALE DEMON OHYAKU, QUICK-DRAW OKATSU and OKATSU THE FUGITIVE, as well as HORRORS OF MALFORMED MEN and SNAKE WOMAN'S CURSE, Synapse fulfills their Toei pledge with the release of WANDERING GINZA BUTTERFLY and its sequel, WANDERING GINZA BUTTERFLY 2: SHE-CAT GAMBLER and what better way to top off such a rewarding endeavor than with a double dose of Meiko Kaji?

Born and raised in the Kanto District, Nami (Meiko Kaji), also known as The Red Cherry Blossom, heads to Tokyo after being released early from prison, where she was serving time for the murder of a Yakuza heavy. Guilt stricken over her past transgressions, Nami takes a job as a hostess in the flashy Ginza district as a means of raising money to pay back the wife of the man she killed three years prior. Quickly finding popularity as a hostess, when she is not honing her billiard skills at her uncle’s pool hall or buying gifts for the bastard son of her slain victim, Nami lends a hand whenever and wherever she can to help her new co-workers, only to quickly find herself in over her head. While business is steady and turning a tidy profit, Yakuza boss Owada wants a bigger piece of the hostess action and has plans to take control of the bar where Nami works by collecting on a past, very large debt. Nami however is not one to sit back and watch as her friends get taken advantage of and has plans of her own to stop Owada, be it from the end of a pool cue or the end of a sharp blade.

I've always held a soft spot for Panik House, as it was through said label that I was first (properly) introduced to the Pinky Violence genre. After their releases of SEX & FURY and FEMALE YAKUZA TALE: INQUISITION & TORTURE in 2005, I was hooked. I wanted more and I wanted it sooner than later. I actively sought out any and all information available on likeminded Japanese cinema and in doing so found that it was not an easy task pinning down an exact archetype for a Pinky Violence picture. Opinions vary as to what ingredients are required to constitute a Pinky Violence label, but certain elements do seem to be constant, such as a strong, sexy female lead who more often than not is hell-bent on revenge while trying to survive on her own terms. As such, GINZA is in many ways a proto-pinky, as the film's violence and sexual nature never reach the over-the-top level that future delinquent pictures would journey into. That being said, GINZA is none the less an entertaining picture filled with kitsch set pieces and colorful underworld characters, capped with a spurting, bloody climax that should appeal to those looking for a Pinky fix.

While highly entertaining and enjoyable on its own merits, Meiko Kaji alone makes WANDERING GINZA BUTTERFLY (Gincho wataridori) worth seeking out. A sleek and sultry beauty, Meiko began her career at Nikkatsu as a regular in the STRAY CAT ROCK series before jumping to Toei after finding little appealing with the softcore Roman Porno line that the studio had essentially decided to focus solely on. After completing Teruo Ishii’s BLIND WOMAN’S CURSE, currently available on DVD from Discotek Media, Meiko was hired by Kazuhiko Yamaguchi to star in two female gambling pictures, according to the director who is featured in an interview found on this release's special features, based solely on her large eyes. At the time Toei was looking for a surrogate to Junko Fuji, the star of the RED PEONY GAMBLER series and Meiko Kaji fit just such a bill. Between filming GINZA and its sequel, SHE-CAT GAMBLER, Meiko took on the lead role in the first of four FEMALE PRISONER SCORPION pictures, a role which would garner the actress a notable amount of success, leading to several other memorable performances in films such as LADY SNOWBLOOD and YAKUZA GRAVEYARD. As Nami, Meiko, who also performs the film's title song, is noticeably warmer than in her SNOWBLOOD or SCORPION pictures, but she still manages to shoot dangers on a number of occasions, especially during a tension filled billiards game in which the fate of her uncle’s pool hall is up for grabs.

Sporting a new, fully restored, anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1) transfer mastered in high-definition from Toei’s original vault elements, WANDERING GINZA BUTTERFLY represents one of Synapse Films' finest transfers to date. Grain is at an absolute minimum and there isn’t a blemish or imperfection to be found in the film's 86 minute running time. The neon lights of Ginza shine loud and bright with Meiko’s skin appearing soft to the touch. Simply put, the film looks amazing. Keeping with the level of quality and care that Synapse has displayed with all of their Toei releases, Dolby Digital 2.0 mono audio is equally clean without any noticeable errors or distractions in presenting the picture's original Japanese language track with newly translated, removable English subtitles.

Extras include an audio commentary track by Chris D., author of Outlaw Masters of Japanese Film, who also provides a biography and selected filmography for lead actress Meiko Kaji. Anyone who has ever heard one of Chris’s previous commentaries knows that the man is a fountain of knowledge on Japanese cinema and culture and as such does not disappoint here in his observations on the films cast and crew. As previously mentioned, a 37 minute video interview with Kazuhiko Yamaguchi is a fascinating glimpse into the director’s career and filmography. Yamaguchi provides recollections on his first encounters with the Japanese film industry as well as his numerous collaboration with Sonny Chiba (KARATE BEAR FIGHTER, KARATE WARRIORS) and Etsuko Shihomi (SISTER STREET FIGHTER), as well as dropping a number of more obscure titles in his filmography. If there is a petition out there somewhere to get KAIBYO TURKO BURO, a film about shape shifting prostitute cats (!) an official U.S. release, please, let me know! A poster gallery of Meiko films as well as trailers for both WANDERING GINZA BUTTERFLY and its sequel and a reversible cover that feature the film's original Japanese poster artwork cap off another impressive entry in Synapse's growing library. (Jason McElreath)