Known primarily for her roles in the "Lady Snowblood", "Stray Cat Rock" and "Female Prisoner" series of films, Meiko Kaji has played her share of reclusive, intense and dangerous women. Stunningly beautiful, but typically with a single purpose in mind - vengeance. The two "Wandering Ginza Butterfly" films she did in the early 1970s follow a somewhat similar template: Kaji's character Nami the Red Cherry Blossom won't stand for injustice and follows through with righting it, but she does it this time with a little less violence and blood splattering. Until she really, really needs to that is.
As a fan of the lovely Ms. Kaji, I have to admit a great deal of bias up front for her presence in any film. It's particularly hard to be objective during much of Kazuhiko Yamaguchi's 1971 film, because Kaji turns on the charm and - this may surprise devotees of the previously mentioned films - she smiles. Her cheekbones get some decent screen time while she is given more room to actually act and respond somewhat naturally to the other characters. The first sequence of the film shows us a kinder and gentler Kaji as a new inmate gets tossed into a women's prison cell and immediately demands to be given preferential treatment. Nami steps in and defuses the entire situation with a simple welcoming gesture and gains the upper hand. She introduces herself as a wanderer and we gradually begin to discover her history.
The key to the film is that slow reveal of her background. We know virtually nothing about her as we pick up the main story, which begins just after Nami is released from prison while she heads back to Tokyo and, specifically, the Ginza district. Within its high end shopping and neon signs, "every single girl in Ginza has a wound from the past that they can't talk about". Her uncle runs a pool hall and it's here that we learn about her abilities not only as a pool player, but as a gambler, con-man and astute judge of people and situations. While these introductory segments spool out, you gain confidence that Yamaguchi will indeed tie everything together: Why was Nami in prison? Who is Kajime Saeko (the woman who vouched for Nami and helped her get out of prison early)? How does Shin (a slick player she meets on the train to Ginza) fit into all of this? And when exactly will yakuza boss Owada get what's coming to him?
The tension builds slowly as you know that a final showdown is on its way. It's effectively handled via all these gradual reveals as well as some of the stylistic choices by Yamaguchi. Whether he is using low or tilted angles, occasional freeze frames, tight zooms, music or simply shadows crossing Nami's face, he's able to string you along while the plot develops. Nami gets a job as a "hostess" at a club and manages to get most of what she earns to Saeko through her friend Ryu - a somewhat bumbling, but streetwise pimp. Meanwhile, Owada and his henchmen are intent on taking over the club and the seeds of retaliation are sown. Yamaguchi keeps things very lively by playing up the humour - the over the top female prison sequence at the beginning, a scene where Nami collects (without any threat of violence whatsoever) owed money from a construction boss, another where she strands a client in the tub after collecting from him (his almost childlike cries and direct look into the camera was one of several laugh out loud moments). Even little musical cues pop up in the background ("La Cucaracha", a Morricone riff, etc.).
All that to say that the film is extremely entertaining for its entire 86 minute run time. Those expecting more of the vengeful blood-splattering Kaji from "Female Prisoner" or "Lady Snowblood" may be disappointed initially, but hopefully the intriguing story and other stylistic elements will work their magic. If not, Meiko Kaji likely will.