Red Peony Gambler

There is cool, cooler and then the Red Peony Gambler. The style she cuts is even sharper than the short sword she uses to discourage her enemies. This was a series of eight films that ran from 1968 through 1972 and propelled actress Junko Fuji into stardom with her portrayal of a female gambler and swordswoman who roams the land looking for revenge and redemption for her family. The series was to a large extent the precursor and inspiration to “Lady Snowblood” which began the year after this series ended, but while that short series of two films has become legendary in the West and is easily available “The Red Peony” series is still very unknown. That is something that should be remedied because they are extremely well done films and enormously satisfying.
Much of this is due to the confident immaculate beauty and charisma of Junko Fuji. She was born in 1945 and was in show business nearly from the beginning. Her father Koji Shundo was a famous producer for Toei who was behind many of the classic Yakuza films of the 1960’s with macho male stars Ken Takakura, Noboru Ando and Koji Tsuruta. In high school Junko studied various arts such as dancing, acting and singing and had the opportunity to appear on a local TV show. Her father actually had no desire for his daughter to enter the rough tumble of show business, but finally gave into her pleas after a Toei director asked her to be in one of his films. Her film debut was in “Tales of Hashu Chivalry: A Man’s Sake Cup” in 1963.
In short order she became one of Toei’s top actresses with a series of films in which she was often paired with Tsuruta or Takakura. In most of these she was the love interest – the loyal woman who stands by her man and often watches him die in the end. With “Red Peony Gambler” she gained a huge following of male fans with her alluring and yet traditional characterization – the perfect woman who could pour tea correctly, arrange flowers and kill someone all in the blink of an eye. In 1972 she married a well-known Kabuki actor and performed only intermittently after that. She still acts occasionally – in “The Geisha House” (1999), “Gege” (2004) and “Milk White” (2004), but even more interesting is that her daughter, Shinobu Terajima, has become an actress and was amazing in the film “Vibrator”.
The Red Peony Gambler films take place around the turn of the century as best as I can tell and they completely inhabit a world that would be similar to that described in Chinese films as Jiang Hu – the Japanese underworld of the Yakuza – and the characters who populate these films are from that environment – gamblers, ronin, thieves, prostitutes, gang members. Like the Jiang Hu though, there are codes and rules that are expected to be followed in this society in the same way of polite society. In one scene Oryu, The Red Peony has to make her case before a conference of Yakuza heads and has this to say about the Yakuza code “Once we join the Yakuza world, we can’t disregard the code of our profession. We live as outlaws in society and thus must keep faith with ourselves. Otherwise we would truly be the scum of the earth.” Though on the surface a female gambler might seem at odds in this man's world and could be perceived as a rebellious figure, but Red Peony is a strong traditionalist and follows the rules of social obligation and hierarchy to the letter. Within this world there are of course those who follow the rules and those who don’t. Tradition is looked upon as a mark of honor - of being Japanese - while Westernization is looked upon with suspicion in these films - in the first film the odious villain dresses in suits and in the second film an imperious Westernized dandy is yanked from his carriage and thrashed.
Most of the Yakuza films during the 1960’s consisted of protagonists who follow the code of honor and this genre of film was termed “Ninkyo-Eiga” (Chivalry Films) in which the hero places his honor to his principles, his friends, his gang and his family above death and often finds exactly that by the end of the film. The Red Peony films are in this tradition except that of course the hero is a heroine and she would easily accept her death rather than break the code of honor. The end of the series is considered by some as the final breath of this genre as the Yakuza film moved into grittier and more realistic territory in which these codes of honor were buried under blood and ruthless cynicism.

With a blood red background and in a traditional kimono, Oryu delivers a formal Yakuza introduction to the unseen head but even more so to the unseen audience:

“I was born in Itsuki, Kumamoto. My name is Ryuko Yano. I go by the name of Oryu, the Red Peony. As you see I’m nobody special”.

She is of the Yano family and her father was the head of a small clan that had the gambling rights for a territory, but after he was murdered on the street his men took the rights away from the family and left her nothing. The father had wanted to keep his daughter out of this life and had her learn the womanly skills of tea ceremony, sewing and flower arrangement and also just in case sword fighting. She had been engaged to the son of a wealthy merchant, but after the father’s death this was broken off and Ryuko was on her own only kept company by her need to track down the killer of her father and to reclaim the rights of the Yano family. She took on the name of the Red Peony to remember the color of the white peonies sprayed by the blood of her father.

She also managed to pick up some of the family gambling skills and begins to wander around Japan earning her keep in the gambling parlors dotted around the country and keeping a wary eye out for some indication of whom the killer might be. She has only a dropped wallet to identify him with. There is no going back to her former life of being a traditional wife and to ensure this she tattoos herself with a large blood red peony flower on her right shoulder. This marks her as Yakuza and now no man outside of this underworld could ever love or marry her. She is in many ways very traditional in her composure, manners and garb, but beneath this is a ferocious need to right the wrongs done to her family. When she began her mission she says “I’ll be a man from now on”, but her form and beauty attract many men to her. Men though tend to die around her – her enemies, her followers and those who love her but she refuses to give men an inch – “Don’t underestimate me because I am a woman” she tells one man and to another who insists that she pour him a cup of sake “I’ve never poured a cup for a man before” as she throws it into his face. She may feel, she may yearn for love but she has another road to go down.

The films (at least the first three) all have the same basic formula - Oryu finds herself in the middle of a Yakuza dispute - one side is honorable, the other is not - and she of course sides with the honorable (and always weaker) one. At some point a strong lone male character appears on the scene and the two of them find common cause. In the end after being as patient as she can be, Oryu gives a look that says it can't be put off any longer and puts on her sword, purses her lips and goes to face the large group of bad guys as the theme song plays during her long walk. Afterwards she moves on to some other city and continues to build her reputation among the Yakuza world in hopes that enough connections will allow her to rebuild her family name.

Red Peony Gambler (Hibotan Bakuto)
Director: Kousaku Yamashita
Production Company: Toei
Year: 1968
Running Time: 98 minutes

Oryu catches the house dealer cheating with a swift hairpin launched at his hand and forces the boss to remove one of his fingers. In doing so she has saved the life of Fujimatsu (Kyosuke Machida) who was about to die for declaring the game a dishonest one but being unable to prove it. She gains a good friend, but also a number of enemies who soon track her down on the outskirts of town and try to kill her against a bright deep sunset. With her short sword she ably defends herself, but is still grateful for the assistance of a wandering swordsman who goes by the name of Naoki (played by Ninkyo-Eiga stalwart Ken Takakura) who just didn’t like the odds. As she journeys on she overhears a conversation in which she learns that the only loyal member of the Yano clan, Fugushin, appears to be in trouble and she goes to see what she can do to help him.

He is staying with a Clan that is headed by the bumpkinish Kumatora (Tomisaburo Wakayama – nearly unrecognizable from his Lone Wolf character) with a penchant for a Hitler like moustache, an eye for the ladies and blossoming red apple cheeks. The big boss  (Nobuo Kaneko) of the much larger Iwazu Clan is pressuring his gang and a fight for territory seems inevitable. Feeling that Fugushin is partly responsible for this state of affairs, Oryu goes to the headquarters of the Iwazu and with pistol in hand demands to see the boss. He reluctantly grants her an audience with a pistol aimed at his head but she hands him the gun and asks for peace between the two groups. When he hesitates Oryu demands that she be punished to bring peace and in a moment of pure drama pulls down her kimono to reveal her tattoo and asks him to shoot the Red Peony. Instead, another woman enters the room – Otaki (Nijiko Kiyokawa) of the Osaki Doman family and takes the gun and shoots the red peonies in the garden and tells Oryu that she reminds her of what she was like many years previously. Oryu has made another loyal connection in the Yakuza world and friendship in this world is a near unbreakable bond. But not always.
Oryu travels on to Osaka to stay with Otaki and takes along Fugushin and Fujimatsu. Here she again feels obliged to run interference when another Yakuza boss causes trouble for Otaki and Fujimatsu – but it turns out that this boss Kokuai is a good friend of Naoki who had helped her before. They are blood brothers going way back, but Naoki also realizes that his friend is the killer that Oryu is looking for and painfully feels he must choose friendship over justice. All these threads lead to a violent explosion of death and redemption. Though the film has a decent quota of action, this isn’t what makes the story so compelling – instead it’s the web of Yakuza obligations that is built over the film and the sense of honor and duty around them that pulls you in. And of course Junko Fuji.

Red Peony Gambler 2: Gambler’s Obligation (Hibotan Bakuto: Isshuku Ippan)
Director: Noribumi Suzuki
Production Company: Toei
Year: 1968
Running Time: 95 minutes

Oryu is once again a traveler on the road but she is a guest at the home of Togasaki, the honorable head of the Yakuza in the town of Tomioka. The film begins with a drum barrage as Oryu beats out a rhythmic pattern as the people dance in a festival – a scene that makes you realize that the ending of Kitano’s "Zatoichi" was not as out of time as it may have felt. Trouble is stirring in the town as the mulberry tree growers are deeply in debt to the local loan shark who won’t give them a break. They go to Togasaki and ask for his help in working out a deal. Meanwhile, a gambler is having more success than Togasaki would like at one of his betting places and he politely asks Oryu to go and see what she can do about it. The gambler is a woman called Oren who keeps her attire at mid-shoulder in order to display her intricate tattoo work and wears a scowl like an army trench at Flanders Field while her husband at her side counts their winnings. Oryu defeats Oren in a game of chance, but this only begins to pay back the obligation she feels she owes Togasaki.

Togasaki asks her to deliver a letter to their friend Kumatora (from part one – played by Tomisaburo Wakayama) and Kumatora's man Fujimatsu (also in part one), but once the letter is read Oryu realizes that it was just an excuse to get her away from danger. She soon learns that Togasaki was killed when he tried to lead the farmers against the loan sharks – and that he was betrayed by his main lieutenant, Kasamatsu, who then took over the gang and forced the town’s women to work in his silk mill. Not satisfied with this, Kasamatsu also rapes the daughter of Togasaki and tries to destroy her business. Clearly, he and the Red Peony have much to talk about. Obligations are not cancelled by death.
She attempts to convince the Yakuza counsel to remove the legitimacy of Kasamatsu’s takeover, but he counters this by sending his thugs headed by a lean wiry killer played by the cold-eyed but always fascinating to watch Bunta Sugawara to kill Oryu. She fends off the attackers with her umbrella and some slick judo, but has to turn to her short blade to leave some real marks to remember her by. Out of the shadows a man comes to assist her – a poor woman seemingly in need – he is Shutaro (Koji Tsuruta) – a chivalrous gentleman and also a famous killer. He is returning to his hometown that he left many years before – Tomioka it turns out and events are soon to take place here that will have them both steeped in blood. This is a terrific sequel to the first film – it doesn’t need to slow down to explain any background and takes off immediately with a flurry of interesting characters, vivid colors and amped up violence. Director Norifumi Suzuki was to gain some fame within a few years for his pinku films like “Convent of the Sacred Beast”, “Beautiful Girl Hunter” and a few of the “Sukeban” series. He also wrote a few of the other Red Peony scripts.

Red Peony Gambler 3: Flower Cards Game (Hibotan Bakuto: Hanafuda Game)
Director: Tai Kato
Production Company: Toei
Year: 1969
Running Time: 98 minutes

Oryu finds herself again having to choose sides in a deadly face off between rival Yakuza gangs in Nagoya. She arrives at the house of Nishinomaru with a letter of introduction from Kumatora (Tomisaburo Wakayama) and formally asks for hospitality from the head of the clan, Sugiyama (the dour faced Kanjuro Arashi), but she is accused of being a cheat by his followers. Apparently, a woman is going about the country claiming to be the Red Peony and taking people in games of chance. Sugiyama believes her protests of innocence and takes her into his house – she is of course now obligated for his kindness. When Oryu comes across the impersonator later she realizes that she is the same woman whose blind child she had earlier saved from an oncoming train and so allows the woman to escape from a number of men who wish to do her harm. This act of kindness is later repaid to the fullest. Sugiyama is at odds with the corrupt Kimbara who is in league with some politicians to take away certain gambling rights of the Nishinomaru family – what Sugiyama doesn’t know is that his son Jiro (Ritsu Ishiyama) is in love with the step-daughter of Kimbara and this fact soon brings the simmering issues to a bloody boil.

When Jiro learns that Kimbara is marrying off Yae to curry favor he goes to him and puts his life on the line in a game of dice – he loses and Kimbara tells Oryu who has intervened that he will kill Jiro at midnight unless he receives 2,000 Yen. Another character enters the mix – the wandering gambler Shugo (Ken Takakura) who is staying with Kimbara and as an honorable Yakuza he feels obligated to assist his host. When Shugo and Oryu meet they recognize each other as kindred souls but are also in opposite camps in the inevitable conflict that is coming. Eventually, Kimbara pushes his luck too far and Oryu begins her traditional walk to his headquarters with her sword at her side as well as her loyal friend Fujimatsu to do what has to be done – kill everyone.
A number of other familiar characters show up as well – Kumatora displays a less comic side (and a less comic moustache) as he savagely defends Oryu’s honor on one occasion and Oryu’s friend from the first episode – the female gang leader Otaki (Nijiko Kiyokawa) – makes an appearance. What can cause some minor confusion is the reappearance of some actors from earlier episodes – Takakura for example – who are playing different characters. By the third episode in the series the main formula is well in place and that makes parts of the film somewhat predictable but no less satisfying – in fact knowing the big showdown is just a matter of time makes the build up all that much more enjoyable. Most rewarding in this film is simply watching the various plot threads come together and the well-drawn characters that inhabit this world. The action tends to be short and swift until the final confrontation in which blood flows freely.

My rating for the series: 8.0

Red Peony Gambler 6: Oryu's Visit (1970)