In the late 1960s and early 1970s, as the combination of television and American film imports threatened to shut down the Japanese movie industry, a new genre of film exploded in Japan to reclaim its audience. Variously called “pinku eiga” or “pinky violence,” this exploitation genre was a cinematic cocktail of sex, eroticism and ultra-violence. It’s also home to a little-known billiards movie: Wandering Ginza Butterfly (original title: Gincho wataridori).
Directed by Kazuhiko Yamaguchi and released in 1972, Wandering Ginza Butterfly is the story of a young woman, Nami, who is released from prison after serving 3 years for killing a yakuza boss. When she returns home, she finds a living with her uncle, who owns a pool hall and taught her to hustle. To help pay back the woman who had her sentence commuted, she gets a job as a hostess in Ginza. But, she cannot shake her criminal past. When a local yakuza threatens to take over the bar, Nami challenges him, first in a battle of three-cushion pool (!!) and then via an all-out massacre.
The movie’s lead is Meiko Kaji, Tokyo’s rising pinky violence outlaw at the time. Having starred in Mini-Skirt Lynchers (1969) and Stray Cat Rock: Sex Hunter (1970), she was cast in Wandering Ginza Butterfly to “awaken sleepy audiences” and because of her “gorgeous eyes,” according to the director. She subsequently starred in the Female Convict Scorpion series (1972-1973), Lady Snowblood (1973), and ultimately, about 100 movies. For those that might roll their eyes, consider that Lady Snowblood was a major influence for Quentin Tarantino in creating O-Ren Ishii’s character in Kill Bill. (In fact, Tarantino’s connection to Meiko Kaji extends even farther, as he included two of her songs — “Song of Hate” and “Flower of Carnage” – in the final scene and closing credits of Kill Bill Volume 1.)
But I digress….after all, this is a blog post about a billiards movie.
Throughout Wandering Ginza Butterfly, characters walk in and out of pool rooms, but the major scene is a three-cushion billiards showdown between Nami and a junkie henchman named Third Eye Ryu. Three-cushion billiards, one of the most popular and challenging cue sports in the world, consists of three balls and a pocketless pool table. The object of the game is to carom the cue ball off both object balls, but to make sure the cue ball hits the rail cushion at least three times before hitting the second object ball. (This is the same carom game featured in Carambola (2003), the topic of a future blog post.) The extended scene shows off some incredible billiards shots, and it is not a surprise that the director specifically cited the scene as one he was “very proud” of. He also pays homage to The Hustler by prominently featuring a poster of the film above the pool table.
Though there is limited pool in Wandering Ginza Butterfly, the film earns its placement in the billiards movie canon for the same reason that Turn the River, the 2007 movie starring Famke Janssen (and the topic of a future blog post) is on every billiards movie list. Both feature strong female, embattled protagonists who are “forced” to use their pool hustling skills to right an unfavorable situation. A climactic match occurs (of one-pocket in Turn the River), our hero wins, only to find the win to be fleeting. Of course, in Wandering Ginza Butterfly, the game is followed by an all-out sword massacre, including impaling someone with a cue stick (this does not happen in Turn the River) , but hey, there needed to be at least a little violence in this otherwise subdued film.
Since Synapse Films recently transferred and released Wandering Ginza Butterfly on DVD, this billiards movie is now widely available to buy and rent online. Also look out for its sequel — Wandering Ginza Butterfly : She-Cat Gambler (1972), starring Sonny Chiba (but, sadly, no more pool).