Okomo, The Orphan Gambler

Year: 1971
 Tai Kato
Rating: 8.0

Aka - Onna Toseinin

As Fuji Junko and Tsurura Koji walk slowly through a light snowfall in the hours of dusk towards a climatic ending against hordes of Yakuza bad guys, a mournful song breaks out "They are like two fallen leaves, blown together by the wind". These two iconic Ninkyo eiga actors, who were often paired together in a flurry of action films in the 1960's, send a bit of a chill up your spine. You know a lot of deaths lie ahead. So many of these films end in a similar way but they always satisfy a need within the audience as the whole film has led up to this moment.

In theory, this is another female gambler film but in fact there is only an iota of gambling that takes place near the beginning. It is instead a wonderful mesh of the melodramatic with spurts of action and dollops of comedy along the way. And of course Fuji Junko who is always so serene, so polite, so perfectly made up even as she kills with gun or sword. She was a huge star back then in these types of films (the Red Peony Gambler series is a favorite consisting of eight films) - I am not even sure if she made films in contemporary settings as everything I have seen her in is a period film. Though the melodrama seems more than a bit calculated - a long gone mother, a little girl, a loving father who has to say goodbye - it works really well because everything is so restrained. Both of these actors are the masters of never showing emotion other than with their eyes.

We first meet Okomo (Junko) on a dirt highway as a carriage comes her way. She stops it and announces very politely to the people inside "I am Hayami Koma also known as Tsumakou Okomo. I have no grudge against you Boss but I am here to kill you by the Yakuza code". She is an independent Yakuza but still with obligations within that world. Her mother was sold into a brothel to pay for debts when she was a young girl and her father killed. She was brought up by a Yakuza boss and now is wandering the countryside looking for her mother who she can only identify by a birthmark on her wrist. At the inn she sees a young girl on her own who is waiting for her father to return who like Okomo is a professional gambler. This turns out to be Tsukuba (Tsurura) who is soon asked by a Yakuza boss to fulfill an obligation and go on a suicide mission - kamikaze - from which he doesn't expect to return and so asks Okomo to please take his daughter to her grandparents in a far off town. And so sets in action a reckoning.

Directed by Shigehiro Ozawa, who later directed three of the Street Fighter films as well as one of the Sister Streetfighter films, shows a very delicate hand here - never rushes the story - touches on a lot of cultural aspects - but allows the emotional core to build up. It is beautifully shot with great sets. There was one sequel titled Bitter Tears of a Woman Gambler that I hope I can track down one of these days. Fuji Junko was to retire in 1972 when she got married which perhaps was just as well - hard to picture her in the trashy female action films that were to become popular - but she returned to acting in 1989 under the name Sumiko Fuji. She was in one of my favorite films - Hula Girls 2006 - but I don't think I realized that when I saw it. She is still acting.