Radiance Films: Big Time Gambling Boss (1968) - Reviewed


Photo courtesy of Toho

A film doesn't have to be overly complex to be considered a masterpiece, and often it's the simple stories with masterful execution that end up resonating the most with audiences. Kôsaku Yamashita's Big Time Gambling Boss (1968) is one such film, a tragic story about how undying loyalty can rip friendships and families apart at the seams.

The setting is Tokyo in the early 1930s, and the film picks up right in the middle of the fray. The elderly boss of a yakuza gang has suffered a debilitating stroke and is bedbound. With what little energy he has left he informs the group that it is time to choose his successor. His pick is Shinjirô Nakai (Kôji Tsuruta), a stoic and thoughtful man who is well-liked by the gang. Nakai gracefully declines and suggests Tetsuo Matsuda (Tomisaburô Wakayama), currently in jail, serving a five-year sentence for doing some dirty work for the band. Unwilling to wait, the gangsters pick Kôhei Ishido (Hiroshi Nawa), a young and inexperienced member. All is well initially until Matsuda gets out of jail early on parole and discovers that Ishido has been chosen over himself and Nakai. Can Nakai keep Matsuda from expressing anger and breaking the yakuza code of honor? 

Big Time Gambling Boss is an example of a ninkyo eiga or "chivalry film" wherein a character has to decide between following his personal feelings and upholding his secret code keeping his loyalties. The film is from Nakai's point of view, and we see him happily interacting with his wife and family–he seems like an upstanding man (for a gangster) who only wants the best for his clan. Tsuruta's performance is measured and nuanced, and he can show a lot of emotion in his face and actions. On the other hand, Wakayama is reckless and violent, which might surprise viewers who only know him from his stint as the stone-faced Ogami Ittō in the Lone Wolf and Cub series. They play off each other beautifully, and as the situation starts spiraling out of control, the angst felt by the characters is palpable.

Aesthetically, the visuals are sparse and low-key–much of the film takes place either in yakuza meetings or the respective character's homes, but each shot is carefully blocked and filmed for the most impact. Even something as simple as a character leaning forward over a table in a static shot can carry a lot of meaning. When the action does break out, it is quick, bloody, and savage, with no stylization or romanticization. The grim finality of death hangs over the third act like a shroud, and it seems that the film takes no pleasure in the idea of loyalty over emotions. The violence serves no purpose other than satisfying a set of rules that don't apply to everyone equally.


The first visual essay on the set is from author Mark Schilling, titled Ninkyo 101. It serves as a primer for those unfamiliar with the yakuza film genre. He talks about the history of the genre, the different styles, examples of well-regarded yakuza films, and where these films might go in the future.

Next up is deep dive into the themes of Big Time Gambling Boss by Chris D., who provides a brilliant 25-minute visual essay breaking down the film and talking about it in context with other films of the era.

The included booklet has written essays by author Stuart Galbraith IV and critic Hayley Scanlon who go into the film's particulars and the background of the principal actors respectively.

Limited Edition Special Features:

High Definition digital transfer of the film

Uncompressed mono PCM audio

Serial Gambling: A video essay by Chris D., author of Gun and Sword: An Encyclopedia of Japanese Gangster Films 1955-1980, on Big Time Gambling Boss's origins in the Toei studio's serialized yakuza movie production and what sets the film apart (2022)

Ninkyo 101: In this video essay, Mark Schilling, author of The Yakuza Movie Book, delves into the history and impact of the classical style of yakuza film, the ninkyo eiga or "chivalry films" (2022)

Gallery of original promotional stills


Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by maarko phntm

Limited edition booklet featuring new writing on the film by author Stuart Galbraith IV, and critic Hayley Scanlon

Limited edition of 2000 copies, presented in full-height Scanavo packaging with removable OBI strip leaving packaging free of certificates and markings

--Michelle Kisner