The Black Gambler (黒い賭博師, Ko Nakahira, 1965)

Black Gambler posterNikkatsu’s “Mighty Guy” Akira Kobayashi occupied a very particular space in the studio’s collection of leading men. Where Yujiro Ishihara was known for his roguish cheek, Tetsuya Watari for his bruiser nobility, and Joe Shishido for his detached efficiency, Kobayashi’s chief selling point was his gentlemanly charm and unflappable decency. The “Gambler” series which ran to eight films in all cast him as a James Bond-esque wandering cardsharp with a well tailored suit and keen intellect capable of defeating even the most devious of opponents. The sixth in the series, simply titled The Black Gambler (黒い賭博師, Kuroi Tobakushi), finds Koji Himuro (Akira Kobayashi) returning to Tokyo and straight into the middle of international intrigue as he gets mixed up with a global gambling syndicate hellbent on bringing its particular brand of funny business to the Japanese capital.

Himuro, renowned for his skills at the gaming table, is called to an exclusive gambling party where he entertains the French Ambassador and ruins a cheating rival in the process. Inumaru (Asao Koike), humiliated by his defeat, sends his mistress Reiko (Manami Fuji) to spy on Himuro and figure out all his secrets so they can get their revenge. However, Himuro gets himself mixed up in a bigger crisis when he comes to the rescue of a foreign woman in a park running away from a scary looking gangster. The woman, Nina, claims to be an air stewardess flown in from Hong Kong who has fallen foul of a Chinese gangster named Yang. Yang has apparently tricked her into amassing vast debts and thereafter attempted to recoup his investment in other ways. Himuro is a noble sort of guy and so decides to pay off Nina’s debt by defeating Yang in a game of cards, but Yang is a different kind of opponent than he’s hitherto faced and Himuro finds himself floundering unable to figure out Yang’s particular cheat.

Nikkatsu’s action line was famous for its “borderless” approach, making an international milieu one of its many selling points. This is not to say its vision of global Japan was altogether positive – in fact the reverse was often true. Once again, the Chinese have been designated the criminal element of choice with Yang painted as a villainous cheater complete with a horrible Fu Manchu beard and delirious cackle, sure that his unique method for ensuring victory cannot be beaten. Meanwhile, Himuro’s first engagement dropped him straight into a world of international diplomacy and it comes as no surprise to learn that Yang’s activities are merely a facet of a wider conspiracy which turns out to be run by a Jewish gambler who apparently used his ill gotten gambling gains to finance the Nazis during the second world war. Perhaps it’s wise not to even start trying to unpack that one.

Himuro’s upscale world of high stakes games played in well appointed rooms by men wearing tuxedos and drinking martinis may be a world away from the dirty backstreet shenanigans of Nikkatsu’s other gambling adventures, but there is bite in its defiant bid for frivolity. When Himuro first rocks up at the French Ambassador’s residence, his assistant doesn’t really want to let him in. He is infuriated that with a war going on in Vietnam his boss is taking time out to play silly games of chance rather than getting on the with real business of diplomacy. Vietnam is referenced again in the ironic closing freeze frame in which Himuro covers his face with a newspaper bearing the headline “America bets on bombing North Vietnam” – politics itself is now a game played by men in smart suits trying to stave off the boredom of being alive by using the lives of real men and women as gambling chips with little more feeling for them than for the tiny scraps of plastic which stand in for meaningless little bits of paper in the centre of a table covered in green felt.

Women, it seems, are a more immediate casualty of a gambler’s vice. Reiko, sent to spy on Himuro but drawn to his cardsharp’s acumen, was herself gambled away by her father who lost her to Inumaru in a bet. She holds no affection for the man who won her, but feels bound to him all the same and has vowed to become a top gambler as an odd kind of revenge. Nina too suffers at the hands of gangsters and criminals, drawn to Himuro because of his heroic nobility and unable to escape the underground world of grifters and chancers without the help of a seasoned player.

Sticking to a house style, Nakahira finds little scope to express himself in another B-movie adventure for the sophisticated gambling man. Nevertheless, there’s enough Bond-inspired silliness to keep the franchise fans happy from Himuro’s ball bearing loaded car to the gaming intrigue and intricate cheats that define it. The Black Gambler is a fairly typical example of Nikkatsu’s regular programme picture with little to distinguish it but it does what it sets out to well enough and with crowd pleasing style.


Opening scene (no subtitles)

Room for Let (貸間あり, Yuzo Kawashima, 1959)

room for rent poster“Life is just goodbyes” exclaims a tenant of the small, rundown boarding house at the centre of Yuzo Kawashima’s Room for Let (貸間あり, Kashima Ari). Best remembered for his anarchic farces, Kawashima takes a trip down south to the comedy capital of Japan for an exploration of life on the margins of a major metropolis as a host of eccentric characters attempt to negotiate the difficult post-war economy, each in someway having failed badly enough to end up here. Though the setting is perhaps depressing, the lively atmosphere of the boarding house is anything but and the residents, depending on each other as a community of solidarity, know they have the ultimate resource at their disposal in the form of infinitely kind hearted, multi-talented fixer Goro Yoda.

Our introduction to the boarding house follows the passage of an outsider, Yumiko Tsuyama (Chikage Awashima) – a ceramicist who wants to make use of Goro’s printing facilities, but to find him she’ll first have to run the gamut of eccentric residents from the batty bee keeper to the geisha currently trying to fumigate one of her patrons by riding him around the room and the henpecked husband who responds to his wife’s frequent shouts of “Darling!” with a military style “yes, sir!”. On her way to Goro’s jam packed annex, Yumiko notices a room to let sign along with a kiln in the courtyard which catches her eye. Taking a liking both to the room and to Goro, Yumiko moves in and subsequently gets herself involved in the oddly exciting world of an old-fashioned courtyard standing on a ridge above a rapidly evolving city.

Played by well known comedian Frankie Sakai (who played a similar role in Kawashima’s Bakumatsu Taiyoden of two years earlier), Goro is an awkward symbol of post-war malaise and confusion. Goro, a jack of all trades, is the man everyone turns to when they run into a seemingly unsolvable problem, and Goro almost always knows a way to solve them (for a price). His sign in the marketplace proclaims that he speaks several languages and is available for tutoring students, he’s written “how to” books on just about everything you can imagine, he knows how to make the perfect cabbage rolls and konyaku, ghostwrites serial fiction, and runs a small printing enterprise, yet Goro is not a scholar, (licensed) lawyer, doctor, or successful businessman he’s a goodhearted chancer living on his wits. He runs away from success and eventually from love because he doesn’t think he deserves it due his continuing “fakery”.

Despite his minor shadiness, Goro’s kindness and sincerity stand in stark contrast to the evils of his age. Like Goro, many of the boarding house residents are trying to get ahead through somewhat unconventional means including the bawdy lady from upstairs whose main business is blackmarket booze, the peeping-tom street punk who peddles dirty pictures near the station, and the sad young woman working as an independent geisha (Nobuko Otowa) to save enough money to marry her betrothed whom she hopes is still waiting for her at home in her tiny village. That’s not to mention the mad scientist bee keeper who can’t help describing everything he sees in terms of bees and has attempted to turn their apian secretions into a cream which increases sexual potency, or the enterprising landlady who realises she could charge a few more pennies for patrons who want to sit in a fancy seat or watch TV while they eat dinner.

Yumiko isn’t the only outsider sending shockwaves through the community, a young student armed with a camera and the determination to avoid parental disapproval, intends to petition Goro to take his exams for him. The aptly named Eto (Shoichi Ozawa) is a dim boy with seemingly infinite wealth who’d rather scheme his way to the top than invest his energy in getting there the honest way. In this he’s the inverse of Goro whose simple sincerity and easy going nature are, it is subtly suggested, partly the reason he hasn’t made his way in the increasingly duplicitous post-war society. Goro does, however, give in to Eto’s nefarious plan even if it conflicts with his otherwise solid honour code which also sees him turn down the “opportunity” of sleeping with his neighbour’s seemingly insatiable wife in one of the stranger requests coming in to his do anything shop.

Kawashima’s true mastery lies not in the myriad moments of small comedy that pepper the main narrative, but in the glorious way he brings them all together as a perfectly constructed farce. The residents of the boarding house (one of whom is so proud of the “room to let” sign he made that he doesn’t want to rent the room because then he’d have to take the sign down) each face their own difficulties and disappointments but even when darkness creeps in (suicides, arrest, sexual assault, and animal cruelty all raising their ugly heads) the absurd positivity and warmth of these ordinary Osakans seems to be enough to combat it. Life may be a series of goodbyes, but it must still be lived, at least to the best of one’s ability.


 Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2018.

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