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The Big Gamblers of the Amazon

August 23, 2015

The Big Gamblers of the Amazon (Amazon mushuku: Seiki no daimaoh) (1961)

New York, 1961. A worldwide gambling committee gathers. The industry is in recession. Japan is seen as the most promising new market. Enter Amazon Kenji (Chiezo Kataoka), a homeless gunman and master gambler (mostly because he cheats) from the jungle, wearing poncho and a huge Mexican hat, who introduces himself by shooting a cigar from a random guy’s hand. He’s going to be the first one to sink his teeth in the new market. But before he gets there, but he’s joined by an Americanized bastard Gold Rush Kumakichi and Jack the Ace, the son of a Japanese geisha on Paris. Once in Japan, the trio is hired by a Chinese gambling lord who is also running a drug business.

This is an insane action comedy gem by Shigero Ozawa, the director of The Street Fighter (1974). It’s also a fascinating mix of new and old; the type of colourful film sets and costumes from Toei’s lavish Kyoto productions combined with mad energy that was running wild at Toei’s contemporary Tokyo studios. The film also includes strong western influences and a climatic shoot out where the hero guns down at least 60 bad guys. It only makes sense that halfway into the storyline the protagonist is actually locked up in a mental hospital. It is a little bit bizarre to see veteran actor Kataoka, who starred in countless samurai films since the 1920s, in such a madcap role.

For a film packed with foreign supporting characters (most of whom get killed in the final shoot-out) it’s of course a bit ridiculous that everyone is speaking Japanese! The film fully acknowledges this and even makes fun of it. In one of the better jokes we have French characters, who were speaking nothing but Japanese until then, suddenly switch to French language to plot a sneaky plan. When the French speaking Jack the Ace overhears them, one of the French characters shouts out “dammit, he understood us” – in Japanese! And this is how the language switches back to Japanese.

It’s a shame this film has never been released on DVD anywhere in the world. I was lucky enough to catch it in 35mm in a Toei Tokyo retrospective in Tokyo. Amazon Kenji is a lost 1960s cult hero waiting to be discovered by the world! A sequel, in which Kataoka stars as a homeless gambler from The Himalayas, was released later in 1961. Apparently the sequel also contains a yeti!

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