The Cat Gambler Series

Year: 1965 - 1966
Hiroshi Noguchi
Gambling Kitten (1965) - 7.0

AKA The Cat Girl Gambler aka Toba no mesunekai

This was the first in a series of three films from Nikkatsu about a female gambler who is a master dice roller in the game of Cho-han. In all three films she is played by Yumiko Nogawa who has had a very lengthy acting career appearing in three Seijun Suzuki films including Gate of Flesh and Story of a Prostitute. All three films are directed by Hiroshi Noguchi in lovely black and white. There were at least two other film series of female gamblers at the time that were quite popular - the eight Red Peony Gambler films starring Junko Fuji and the seventeen Woman Gambler series starring Enami Kyoko. Since this only went for three films I would guess it was not a smash. During this period, Japanese film companies rode a winner till it died from exhaustion.

The films throw you right into the world of the Yakuza (originated from the numbers 8.9,3 that spell out Ya-ku-za - a losing hand in cards). Though our heroine Yukiko (Yumiko) dresses almost always in a traditional kimono the films are set in contemporary times when the films were made. In particular, the films put you into the Yakuza gambling world of small illegal dens strewn around the city run by various gangs - where the game of Cho-han is played. A croupier sternly throws two dice into a wooden cup and places it face down like a slap on the floor. The men kneeling around the playing area bet on whether the dice will tally to an even or an odd number. Simple one would think but this is the Yakuza and the odds are with the house if the croupier is talented with the dice or able to substitute fixed dice with a quick slight of hand. Of course, if you are caught there are repercussions - such as in the first scene when a cheater has a knife driven through his hand - all part of the code which he accepts.

Yukiko's father was such a cheat who thought he had made an undetectable pair of fake dice - but his reward is a fatal head first dive into the river. The cops have not been able to find his killer after a year and so Yukiko decides to look for the killer herself. How? Well obviously by spending hours practicing the throwing of dice till she masters them. Then she begins working for the Yakuza where Ito (Hideaki Nitani) takes her under his wing, teaches her a few tricks and tattoos her body in various areas to distract the men players. He clearly has a deft touch as a tattoo artist as she writhes and groans with something very close to an orgasm. Now she can look for her father's killer in style.

Though Yakuza focused, the film doesn't really portray them in a wholly negative way - certain members yes - but not the life style - and the casual manner in which the cops interact with them makes it almost like they are a boy's club gone bad. Other than a few tussles there isn't much violence as it is more of a drama than a crime film with some enjoyable gambling scenes. Yumiko Nogawa is terrific - a sensual demur smile with slightly crooked teeth and pleading eyes go a long ways here.

Woman Gambler (1965) - 6.5

AKA - Cat Girl's Gamblers - Naked Flesh Paid into the Pot aka Toba no mesuniko: suhada no tsubo furi.

This is the second film in the Nikkatsu Cat Girl Gambler series - and again stars Yumiko Nogawa and is directed by Hiroshi Noguchi. It helps a bit to have a scorecard in this one as there are a lot of characters and a few different Yakuza gangs to keep straight. Our girl Yukiko (Yumiko) appears to have given up her trade as a croupier in the game of Cho-han to become a masseuse where most of her clientele are gangsters who need the kinks worked out.

But in fact, she is once again looking for a murderer that the same cops as in the previous film are also looking for. Since the last film Yukiko has discovered that her mother who deserted the family when Yukiko was a baby remarried and had a daughter - a half sister for Yukiko - now the only family she has. The man though who married her mother was the head of a Yakuza clan, the Tempu, and when he is murdered the sister is under pressure from two other clans to give up territory. Yukiko of course jumps in to help by finding out who the killer is.

This gets complicated when a yakuza on the run from two other gangsters comes through her window. And he turns out to be a dead ringer for Ito, the man who helped her in the last film. But it is not Ito but Seiji (not surprisingly played by Hideaki Nitani) who just got out of prison and was a protector of the Tempu clan. What a small world it is. Eventually though to find the killer Yukiko has to pick up the cup and the pair of dice and apply her trade to get the inside scoop.

The film has a great opening scene in which Yukiko is throwing the dice and is accused of cheating with a pair of fake dice. She haughtily rises to her feet and challenges the man to search her - I will make it easy for you - as she drops her kimono and anything else under there - sits down and spreads her legs for him to search - all seen from the back or the head up where this is all only implied. It is only 1965, a few years still before that might have been a frontal camera shot.

Cat Girl Gamblers: Abandoned Fangs of Triumph (1966) - 6.5

AKA - The Revenge of the Woman Gambler aka Toba no mesuneko: sutemi no shôbu

This is the third and final film in the Cat Girl Gambler series starring Yumiko Nogawa as a Master Dice thrower in the game of Cho-han. At the end of the second film they stole a page out of the Zatoichi films with her leaving town and wandering alone down an empty dirt road to a new fate. Of course, since these films were set in the 1960's it was a bit odd to be walking to the next town and sure enough at the beginning of the third film she is on a train taking her father's ashes - killed in the first film - back home to be buried. But as always the Yakuza life follows her. As does her bad luck in love. Lucky in dice, broken-hearted in love as the saying could go. Once you are stained with the mark of the Yakuza - literally in her case with tattoos across her back and on her thigh - a normal life is out of reach.

She meets up with an old friend of her father's who heads a Yakuza clan named the Gunji. They are a bit down on their luck and only have a motheaten cabaret club where five Japanese girls in blonde wigs strip each night to the salivating applause of the men in the audience. Yukiko (Yumiko) is given the job of running it and fending off the advances of another Yakuza gang, the Maisaka's who want the club and to run the Gunji out of town. A USA military base is coming to town and they see the potential of the club. In this rendering of the Yakuza the Gunji are like Boy Scouts while the Maisaka's are predators. This yin and yang depiction of the Yakuza runs through all these films. They are not all bad and follow certain honorable codes.

Among Maisaka's men is Yamaguchi, sort of a free agent/free spirit type in sunglasses who enjoys playing with guns who takes a liking to Yukiko and surreptitiously helps her on occasion - and he wants her to roll the dice for Maisaka. He is played by Jo Shishido - famous to Western audiences for his appearances in Seijun Suzuki films in particular Branded to Kill in 1967 - but he was already a big star for Nikkatsu by the time of this film with his artificially augmented Chipmonk cheeks that he had done in the 1950's to bolster his career.

This film has some excellent scenes and more action than the previous two films - at one point Yukiko has to take over the leadership of the Gunji clan and there is a ceremony to mark this in which she does a sword dance. Still by the standards of Yakuza films that were soon to come these are fairly tame with no gushing blood or large scale fights - but gave the audience a mix of drama and melodrama in the world of the Yakuza with Yumiko Nogawa being the main reason to watch them. In the end she again has to move on to another town, another broken-heart. But sadly we never get to see them.