Outlaw: Gangster VIP the Complete Collection

outlaw gangster collectionReview of the Outlaw: Gangster VIP the Complete Collection dual format box set from Arrow Films first published by UK Anime Network.


There are two distinct eras of yakuza movies in Japan – the “ninkyo eiga” strand of traditional, noble gangsters acting out of a sense of loyalty and honour and the “jitsuroku” approach exemplified by Kinji Fukasaku’s Battles Without Honour and Humanity series which sought to show yakuza life for what it was – short, bloody and ultimately pointless. The Outlaw series provides a perfect bridge between the two as it’s based on the true life memoirs of former yakuza Goro Fujita but opts for a genre hybrid by essentially reframing the popular youth movies of the day as gangster noir rather than the down and dirty naturalism of Fukasaku’s magnum opus.

The Outlaw series consists of six films though only the first two are in direct continuity with each other. Gangster VIP 1 & 2 begin the saga of noble hearted gangster Goro who was orphaned when his mother died of illness during the war leaving him to look after his younger sister who also later dies either of illness or of malnutrition becoming the first of the women Goro is unable to save. He ends up a street kid and is eventually sent to reform school from where he escapes with an older boy, Sugiyama, who later resurfaces as a member of a rival gang in Part 1. These two films also chronicle Goro’s ongoing romance with the innocent Yukiko who falls in love with him after he saves her from a gang of thugs.

However, after Gangster VIP 2, the series has little internal continuity and the saga of Goro and Yukiko falls silent. This is actually a little confusing as many of the actors from the other films in the series frequently turn up playing entirely different characters, not least Chieko Matsubara who plays Goro’s love interest in every film but is actually a similarly named yet entirely different woman each time even if she also has a very similar backstory to that of Yukiko in the very first film.

Each chapter follows the same basic pattern – Goro gets out of prison/moves/goes looking for someone and ends up getting into trouble with the local gangsters despite his intense desire to leave the yakuza world behind. The chance of salvation is always offered in the form of Chieko Matsubara who plays exactly the same character each time even though she has different names and falls in love with Goro a little quicker with each passing frame. Goro is the noble hearted wanderer so he always opts to sacrifice his own potential happiness rather than get other people mixed up in his bloody and unpredictable gangster world.

The first few films in the series are more deeply rooted in the post-war past with the major theme being the loss of family and the yakuza providing a home for those otherwise without hope. Having been orphaned and left to starve on the streets, cruelly ignored by passersby and the society at large, men like Goro were forced to form associations with each other for survival and to turn to crime through lack of other options. Given the perilousness of their times, even the yakuza brotherhood is uncertain and these relationships are hollow and ever changing – a far cry from the unconditional love and support supposedly offered by the traditional family unit.

Moving on slightly, the series grows up with Goro as he moves form lamenting his rootless nature to an inability to put down roots for himself as he knows that his dangerous lifestyle is not something he wants to bring a wife, and particularly children, into. Things never end well for the married yakuza in these films who often see their wives or girlfriends kidnapped, raped or used against them in some other way and the overriding message is that love is both a weakness and an irresponsible indulgence for those who live or die by the sword.

The series features three different directors with Red Pier director Toshio Masuda helming the first which is perhaps the most accomplished even if Masuda is often criticised for not having a distinctive style of his own. Keiichi Ozawa picks up for parts 2, 4, 5, and 6 which each more or less follow the style laid out by Masuda though he does add in a few flourishes of his own including a very groovy showdown in a contemporary nightclub in the final film. Part three, Heartless, is directed by Mio Ezaki and is perhaps the weakest in the series though does at least break with the style and direction a little more than might be expected whilst adding a few thrills along the way.

The Outlaw series has perhaps not been fully appreciated outside Japan but now hopefully will be thanks to this excellently put together set from Arrow. The series as a whole feels a little safe at times and often pulls its punches where it had the opportunity to push for something with more bite but its doom laded tale of a noble gangster with a ruined heart is the kind of effortless, nihilistic cool that is hard to beat. Another excellent offering of Nikkatsu Noir mixed with existential youth movie and yakuza trappings, the Outlaw series is a long overdue addition to the world of Japanese action movies and one that every genre enthusiast will be eager to explore.


Outlaw: Gangster VIP the Complete Collection is currently available in a region free dual format Blu-ray/DVD box set in both the US and UK.

Trailer for the series as a whole:

Links to reviews of all six films:

The Monster Chronicles: Tiktik (Erik Matti, 2012)

Tik tik posterReview of Erik Matti’s Philippine folklore/comic book inspired horror movie The Monster Chronicles: Tiktik (also known as Tiktik: The Aswang Chronicles) up at UK Anime Network.


An “aswang” is a supernatural monster from Philippine folklore which is basically a vampire, zombie and were-creature all rolled into one. Appearing just like everyone else in everyday life, the aswangs can disguise themselves as various animals in order to trick unsuspecting people into letting their guard down so they can feast on their hearts and livers. Aswangs are particularly fond of the flesh of unborn babies and will even attempt to sneak into the homes of unsuspecting expectant mothers to suck the child from their very wombs as they lie peacefully asleep.

All of this is very bad news for metropolitan city slicker Makoy who’s managed to trek all the way out to a remote village backwater hoping to win back his heavily pregnant girlfriend who has left him after finally becoming fed up with his total uselessness. However, his efforts seem to have been in vain as Sonia, the possibly ex-girlfriend, doesn’t even want to see him and her domineering mother Feley is dead against this dead beat city boy who’s got her daughter pregnant coming anywhere near her family ever again. Luckily, Sonia’s father, Nestor, is a little more open to the idea of a reconciliation with his grandchild’s father and eventually invites him to stay for Sonia’s birthday celebrations.

At this point Makoy decides to make himself useful by haggling down the price of a pig for roasting at the party, only after managing to pay a whole lot less he ends up with a whole lot more than he bargained for. The local villagers all turn out to be a colony of aswang and now they know about Sonia’s unborn baby it’s not long before all hell breaks out at the prospective parents-in-law of the previously feckless Makoy!

Director Erik Matti (perhaps best known for his urban crime thriller On the Job) opts for a comic book inspired aesthetic by emphasising the artificiality of his studio bound film through noticeably fake CGI backgrounds. Playing out like a Philippine From Dusk Till Dawn, the film has an ironic, pop-culture filled humorous tone and further brings out its comic book trappings through the frequent use of split screens which divide the frame almost like panels do a comic book page. The slightly old fashioned appearance of the split screens coupled with the heightened colour scheme and CGI graphics also add a retro appeal which helps to create the crazy, almost cartoon-like universe in which the film takes place.

However, even if Tiktik has a Saturday morning toon aesthetic, it’s very much an adult affair filled with blood, guts and viscera. An old lady sitting next to Makoy on the cart into town ominously seems to be carrying a large bag of intestines which only seems to foreshadow events to come which will see Makoy wielding a large pitchfork with the guts of an aswang coiled around it like the messiest spaghetti you’ve ever seen.

The aswang might be known for their transforming powers but the real transformation we’re being asked to witness of that of Makoy himself as he plays the classic “stranger in town” role whose arrival is the catalyst for everything going to hell. In the beginning Makoy is an arrogant townie who can’t quite believe the backwardness of this tiny village with no cellphone signal or transport options. He arrogantly assumes he can haggle and barter with the locals by treating them with a superior attitude and the distain of a recent visitor from “civilisation”. This only earns him the additional ire of the aswang who are now, quite literally, out for blood. Sonia may have left him because of his laid back, slacker ways but if he wants to save her and their baby from being devoured by slavering, ugly monsters that no one quite believes in anymore, he’ll finally have to man up.

Makoy manages a little better than Sonia’s father, Nestor – a mild mannered and kind man who loves his fierce wife very much but still can’t quite find the necessary strength within himself to protect his family. If Makoy is to succeed he’ll have to jump into the shoes of a father with both feet, taking charge of a situation which he is not fully equipped to understand.

The film neatly divides itself into two halves with the set-up economically established early on giving way to the aswang assault. Though the action scenes are often exciting and inventive with a fair bit of humour thrown in, Tiktik loses momentum when it switches from the CGI enhanced actors to the completely CGI creatures which are never quite convincing. A genre affair throughout, Tiktik will undoubtedly play better to the Midnight Movie crowd (as it is intended to do) but uninitiated viewers may find themselves tiring of the gore tinged action long before the last aswang is split in twain.


The Monster Chronicles: Tiktik is out now in the UK from Terracotta Distribution following its appearance at the Terracotta Festival in 2014.

 

Farewell My Concubine (霸王别姬, Chen Kaige, 1993)

farewell-my-concubine-1993
French DVD cover

Review of Chen Kaige’s 1993 masterpiece Farewell My Concubine (霸王别姬, Bàwáng Bié Jī) first published by UK Anime Network.


“Why does the concubine have to die?” Spanning 53 years of turbulent, mid twentieth century history, Farewell My Concubine is often regarded as the masterpiece of fifth generation director Chen Kaige and one of the films which finally brought Chinese cinema to global attention in the early 1990s. Neatly framing the famous Peking Opera as a symbol of its nation’s soul, the film centres on two young actors who find themselves at the mercy of forces far beyond their control.

Beginning in 1924, Douzi (later Cheng Dieyi) is sold to an acting troupe by his prostitute mother who can no longer care for him. The life in the theatre company is hard – the boys are taught the difficult skills necessary for performing the traditional art form through “physical reinforcement” where beatings and torturous treatment are the norm. Douzi is shunned by the other boys because of his haughty attitude and place of birth but eventually finds a friend in Shitou (later Duan Xiaolou) who would finally become the king to his concubine and a lifelong companion, for good or ill.

Time moves on and the pair become two of the foremost performers of their roles in their generation much in demand by fans of the Opera. However, personal and political events eventually intervene as Xiaolou decides to take a wife, Juxian – formerly a prostitute, and shortly after the Japanese reach the city. Coerced by various forces, Dieyi makes the decision to perform for the Japanese but Xiaolou refuses. After the Japanese have been defeated Dieyi is tried as a traitor though both Xiaolou and Juxian come to his rescue. The pair run in to trouble again during the civil war, but worse is to come during the “Cultural Revolution” in which the ancient art of Peking Opera itself is denounced as a bourgeois distraction and its practitioners forced into a very public self criticism conducted in full costume with their precious props burned in front of them. It’s not just artifice which goes up in smoke either as the two are browbeaten into betraying each other’s deepest, darkest secrets.

Farewell My Concubine is a story of tragic betrayal. Dieyi, placed in the role of the concubine without very much say in the matter, is betrayed by everyone at every turn. Abandoned by his mother, more or less prostituted by the theatre company who knowingly send him to an important man who molests him after a performance and then expect him to undergo the same thing again as a grown man when an important patron of the arts comes to visit, rejected by Xiaolou when he decides to marry a prostitute and periodically retires from the opera, and finally betrayed by having his “scandalous” secret revealed in the middle of a public square. He’s a diva and a narcissist, selfish in the extreme, but he lives only for his art, naively ignorant of all political concerns.

Dieyi doesn’t just perform Peking Opera, he lives it. His world is one of grand emotions and an unreal romanticism. Xiaolou by contrast is much more pragmatic, he just wants to do his job and live quietly. On the other hand, Xiaolou refuses to perform for the Japanese (the correct decision in the long run), and has a fierce temper and ironic personality which often get him into just as much trouble as Dieyi’s affected persona. The two are as bound and as powerless as the King and the Concubine, each doomed and unable to save each other from the inevitable suffering dealt them by the historical circumstances of their era.

The climax of the opera Farewell My Concubine comes as the once powerful king is finally defeated and forced to flee with only his noble steed left beside him. He begs his beloved concubine to run to sanctuary but such is her love for him that she refuses and eventually commits suicide so that the king can escape unburdened by worry for her safety. Dieyi’s tragedy is that he lives the role of the concubine in real life. Unlike Xiaolou, his romanticism (and a not insignificant amount of opium) cloud his view of the world as it really is.

It’s not difficult to read Dieyi as a cipher for his nation which has also placed an ideal above the practical demands of real living people with individual emotions of their own. Farewell My Concubine ran into several problems with the Chinese censors who objected not only to the (actually quite subtle) homosexual themes, but also to the way China’s recent history was depicted. Later scenes including one involving a suicide in 1977, not to mention the sheer absurd horror of the Cultural Revolution are all things the censors would rather not acknowledge as events which took place after the birth of the glorious communist utopia but Farewell My Concubine is one of the first attempts to examine such a traumatic history with a detached eye.

Casting Peking Opera as the soul of China, Farewell My Concubine is the story of a nation betraying itself. Close to the end when Dieyi is asked about the new communist operas he says he finds them unconvincing and hollow in comparison to the opulence and grand emotions of the classical works. Something has been shed in this abnegation of self that sees the modern state attempting to erase its true nature by corrupting its very heart. Full of tragic inevitability and residual anger over the unacknowledged past, Farewell My Concubine is both a romantic melodrama of unrequited love and also a lament for an ancient culture seemingly intent on destroying itself from the ground up.


Farewell My Concubine is released on blu-ray in the UK by BFI on 21st March 2016.

Original US trailer (with annoying voice over):

Dolls (ドールズ, Takeshi Kitano, 2002)

dollsw01Review of Takeshi Kitano’s Dolls (ドールズ) – first published by UK Anime Network.


Outside of Japan where he is still primarily thought of as a TV comedian and celebrity figure, Takeshi Kitano is most closely associated with his often melancholy yet insistently violent existential gangster tales. His filmography, however, is one of the most diverse of all the Japanese “auteurs” and encompasses not only the aforementioned theatre of violence but also pure comedy and even coming of age drama. Dolls is not quite the anomaly that it might at first seem but perhaps few would have expected Kitano to direct such a beautifully colourful film inspired by one of Japan’s most traditional, if most obscure, art forms – bunraku puppet theatre.

After opening with a bunraku performance featuring an excerpt from the Chikamatsu play Courier For Hell, Kitano moves on to his overarching narrative which connects the tripartite structure in a tale inspired by the classic story The Bound Beggars. This first pair of lovers, Sawako and Matsumoto, wander blankly through the ever changing landscape tied together with a long red rope. The two had previously been a young couple, very much in love, but Matsumoto was pressured into abandoning Sawako to accept a semi-arranged marriage to his boss’ daughter. Distraught, Sawako attempts suicide only to survive but in an almost catatonic state.

The second pair of doomed romantics consists of an ageing yakuza who looks back on his life which has forced him to act in a way that he is not always proud of and now finds himself remembering the girlfriend he parted with thirty years ago after fearing he was about to lose his job. She promised to wait for him, he promised to return a fine man but he became a yakuza and never saw her again. All these years later, she’s still exactly where she said she’d be, waiting.

Story three is strange tale of modern love as a young man becomes obsessed with an idol star who only ever notices his rival. After she is injured in a car accident and decides to retire, the young man takes drastic action to be able to meet with her on what he sees as a more equal footing.

Fools for love, each and every one of them. Love has ruined them, removed rational choice from their field of vision, yet there’s something noble and beautiful in the way in which it has penetrated each of their lives. They love as if possessed by an incurable madness, Sawako tries to kill herself because her heart is broken, a woman grows old spending each Saturday lunch time sitting on a bench with a second lunch box which is going to go to waste, and a young man maims himself to finally get his love’s attention. Was it worth it, in the end? Perhaps not if the desperately sad outcomes of each of these stories is anything to go by.

Kitano rejects his idiosyncratic blue colour palate for a world of vibrant colours. Travelling through a year we move along the seasons as punctuated by their symbolic scenery from cherry blossoms to green verdant landscapes, the overwhelming redness of autumn leaves and finally the purity of the winter snow. We travel one way, but also in circles as we navigate the story of love as it too changes with its seasons yet remains unchanged in essence. Each of the lovers is no more free than a bunraku puppet, manipulated by forces outside of their control and forced into a desperate unhappiness that is in part vindicated by their romantic bonds.

Love is tender, love is cruel. Each of the men, in particular, makes terrible choices which cause only pain to the women they supposedly love and, in their pride and arrogance, they fail to realise the consequences of their actions until it is far too late. The tragic inevitability of life’s suffering and the inability to escape it are the foundation stones of Chikamatsu’s world.

Working with fashion designer Yohji Yamamoto Kitano has created a beautiful, theatrical world of hyper realistic colour and life. Like much of Kitano’s work, Dolls amounts to a sad collection of tales coloured by melancholy and a resignation to the pain and suffering inherent in being alive. The lovers are inexorably bound to each other for all eternity because of the suffering they have each endured at the other’s hand. This is a sad world, but it’s a beautiful one too and even if hurts one must try to live.


Dolls is re-released in the UK on blu-ray courtesty of Third Window films.

(This is an original release trailer and does not reflect the quality upgrade of Third Window Films’ blu-ray release)

I first saw this film I guess almost fifteen years ago (!) and I still occassionally get this song stuck in my head:

 

Audition (オーディション, Takashi Miike, 1999)

audition-posterReview of Takashi Miike’s Audition (オーディション) – first published by UK Anime Network.


The world was a much more innocent place back in 1999. Takashi Miike already had 34 films to his name before Audition became his breakout hit even whilst seeing him branded “sick” by a disgusted audience member at the film’s otherwise successful screening at the Rotterdam film festival. Based on the book of the same name by Japan’s master of the nasty psychological thriller Ryu Murakami, Audition is the twisted romantic nightmare to end all twisted romantic nightmares.

Aoyama is a widower with an almost grown-up child. Now that his parental responsibilities are changing, and spurred on by his encouraging son, Aoyama perhaps feels ready to move into another phase of his life by considering the idea of getting married again. However, Aoyama is a sensitive and romantic man who’s actually a little naive when it comes to matters of the heart and obviously hasn’t had much experience in the dating world in the last twenty years. He turns to an old friend who happens to be a casting director and comes up with the novel (if somewhat inappropriate) idea of letting Aoyama sit in on an audition to look for a new wife.

In glancing over the headshot resumés, one catches his eye – that of a former ballet dancer who equates having had to abandon her dream of becoming a professional dancer because of an injury with a sort of spiritual death. This deep sense of loss strikes a chord in the widowed Aoyama and despite his friend’s warnings that she gives him the creeps, Asami is the one he’s set his heart on. However, Asami is not the sweet and innocent girl she first appears to be…

In the intervening 15 years since its original release, Audition has amassed something of a reputation which is to say that viewers will almost certainly be aware of its “extreme” nature. However, Audition arguably works best when seen blind as it begins as a fairly straightforward romantic drama in which a broken hearted widower begins to live again thanks to the attentions of a shy young woman. Of course, Miike is peppering the otherwise anodyne love story with subtle (and not so subtle) clues all the way through, planting doubts in our minds right away. Is Aoyama just an old fool who’s lost his head over a young beauty or is he right to grow suspicious in the face of the ever increasing, yet circumstantial, evidence of Asami’s strangeness?

Is Asami hiding a dark secret, or is Aoyama projecting his fears of romantic entanglements onto her  silhouette and therefore creating, in some sense, a villainess worthy of his anxieties? According to Miike himself, Audition is not a horror movie (Japanese horror movies are linked with the supernatural and Audition’s terrors are very much of the real world) – Murakami in fact wrote the book as a strange kind of “love letter” to a woman he had wronged. Miike sought to envisage her reply and gives her an opportunity to offer a series of extremely dark explanations of her own. Neither Aoyama or Asami have been honest with themselves or each other. Aoyama is looking for a cookie cutter ideal to fit into the pre-made box marked “wife”, and well, it would be better not to go into all the various ways Asami has misrepresented herself but she does have a point when she calls Aoyama on how easy it was to make him fall for her meek and feeble innocent act.

Asami and Aoyama are always working at cross purposes to each other, engaged in a macabre dance where Asami leads by stealth, waltzing Aoyama into her spider’s web of vengeance by neatly subverting his ideas of femininity. However, this is not to cast Asami as a vile temptress or the predatory female born of male fears of emasculation (though these ideas are definitely in play), nor is she an avenging feminist warrior so much as a lonely, damaged woman. At the very end of the film the pair have perhaps reached a kind of understanding as, according to Asami, only in extreme pain does one understand one’s own mind. Left maimed and helpless, each is scarred and broken but alive and, perhaps, at peace at last.


Audition is now re-released on blu-ray in the UK from Arrow Films in a significantly better transfer than the previous US blu-ray from Shout Factory.

 

Kikujiro (菊次郎の夏, Takeshi Kitano, 1999)

b97b89932bReview of Takeshi Kitano’s 1999 masterpiece Kikujiro AKA Kikujiro’s Summer (菊次郎の夏, Kikujiro no Natsu) first published by UK Anime Network.


When thinking about the career of iconoclastic Japanese director Takeshi Kitano, “cute” is not a word which immediately springs to mind. Nevertheless, it’s a fairly apt one for describing the bittersweet tale of one summer in the life of a lonely little boy and the roughhousing ex-yakuza who becomes his reluctant guardian.

Masao is a mournful looking schoolboy who lives alone with his grandmother. It’s almost the school summer holidays and all the other kids are excited about family trips and activities but Masao’s grandmother still has to work so they won’t be doing anything and he’ll have to entertain himself throughout all of the long, hot break. Seeing as all of his friends have gone away, and after finding a photograph of his parents and another of his mother and grandmother with him as an infant, Masao decides to take off for an adventure of his own to track down his long absent mum. However, he doesn’t get very far before some bigger boys have taken all his money and actually seem annoyed he doesn’t have more. Luckily, a former neighbour and her husband turn up and get the money back for him but they explain the town where Masao’s mother lives is too far for a little boy to travel all on his lonesome. The wife makes her husband, Kikujiro (Kitano) take the boy on summer trip of their own but what they find there isn’t exactly what either of them had been expecting.

In many ways, Kikujiro is in the best tradition of odd couple road trips. Kikujiro didn’t really want to escort this sad little boy on a strange family holiday but his wife insisted (and she gave him quite a lot of spending money) so he reluctantly takes Masao on a journey but introduces him to some of his favourite pursuits such as gambling on bicycle races and hanging out in hostess bars. Little by little he starts to warm to the boy and the pair go on to have several strange encounters throughout their trip, largely down to Kikujiro now being broke after losing all the money gambling at the beginning.

Sending a little boy off with a total stranger doesn’t seem like the best idea in retrospect, even if it’s preferable to letting Masao head off alone. Kikujiro is very much not an appropriate baby sitter which makes for a lot of comedic scenes from an outsider’s view though perhaps Masao’s grandmother might not find it so funny if anyone ever decides to tell her about any of this. There is only one scene in the film where something very untoward threatens to befall Masao involving a “scary man” in a park but luckily Kikujiro turns up just in the nick of time. This episode is, in truth, a little hard to take alongside the otherwise fun encounters which showcase Kikujiro’s own clownish, immature qualities.

The film is seen more or less through the innocent viewpoint of Masao and broken up into chapters seemingly taken from his “what I did on my holidays” scrapbook project. Perhaps not having the material to complete this inevitable post-summer assignment was one of the motives for Masao finally taking off on his own to solve the mystery of his absent mother but what his teacher’s going to make of this strange collection adventures is anyone’s guess (perhaps if he’s lucky no one will believe it anyway).

The story doesn’t finish once Masao and Kikujiro have reached the furthest point of the journey but carries on through their way back too as Kikujiro tries to cheer the boy up and begins to reflect on his troubled relationship with his own mother. The true reason for film’s name becomes apparent towards the end as Kikujiro mournfully watches Masao run off back home perhaps feeling sorry for him but also a little wistful that his own summer adventure is over and he might never have such a fun trip again.

Warm and funny, Kikujiro employs a hearty dose of sardonic black humour for its tale of a childlike gangster’s growth process as he morphs into the figure of a guardian angel for a sad little boy. Aided by Joe Hisaishi’s wistful score and the beautiful landscape of a Japanese summer by the sea, Kikujiro proves a slightly unusual entry in Kitano’s filmography (though only up to a point) and an often underrated one though it ranks among his highest achievements for its sheer poetic power alone.


Kikujiro is re-released on blu-ray today in the UK courtesy of Third Window Films who will shortly also be re-releasing Dolls and, it’s recently been announced, Kids Return and A Scene at the Sea.

This is the only trailer I could find and it’s from the original US VHS release so it’s extremely irritating (sorry), film is not this annoying (promise).

Nikkatsu Diamond Guys Vol. 1

nikkatsudg_av037Review of Arrow’s Nikkatsu Diamond Guys Volume 1 first published on UK Anime Network.


“Diamond Guys” is the name given to the top line of A-list stars at Japan’s oldest film studio Nikkatsu during their period of relaunching themselves as a major production house during the 1950s. At this time, Japanese studios, like their Hollywood counterparts, worked largely on a star system where they held a number of actors and actresses under contract and slotted them into their productions as and where they saw fit. Of the three stars in these pictures, Yujiro Ishihara perhaps burned brightest as a James Dean style apathetic hero and icon of the “sun tribe” era. Hideaki Nitani ultimately carved a niche for himself as a second lead rather than in starring roles and is a little more on the soulful side than the other guys. Akira Kobayashi who’s still fairly young here is probably the most familiar to overseas audiences later starring in a number of gangster pictures including Arrow’s previous releases Retaliation and the Battles Against Honour and Humanity series.

The first film included in the set, Voice Without a Shadow, is a notable inclusion as it’s a little seen, early effort from the notorious master of the surreal, Seijun Suzuki. In a significantly restrained mood here, Suzuki adapts a Seicho Matsumoto short story with noirish overtones as a telephone switchboard operator accidentally connects a wrong number and unwittingly hears the voice of a murderer at a crime scene. Hideaki Nitani plays a conflicted reporter who’s fallen in love with the switchboard operator who is, alas, already engaged. Three years later she hears the voice again in a gangster her husband unwisely becomes involved with only to have him killed and her husband become the prime suspect.

Film number two, Red Pier, comes from Toshio Masuda and stars pinup of the day Yujiro Ishihara in a characteristically cheeky, nihilistic gangster role. Dressed in a bright white suit and sunglasses, “Jiro the Lefty” is a petty yakuza street kid who found a home in a gang but dreams of a better life somewhere else. After witnessing the strange death of a potential target who gets crushed by a crane at the docks, Jiro ends up meeting the man’s sister and, of course, falls for her. Unfortunately, just about everyone now has it in for Jiro and his happily ever after seems very far off indeed.

The Rambling Guitarist, by contrast, is the only film in the collection to be filmed in colour but makes fantastic use of its super bright, psychedelic look. Starring Akira Kobayashi as a drifter with a guitar, the film starts out like a western but ends as a yakuza pic with a little youth drama thrown in for good measure. It’s fighting, music, and gunplay with Jo Shishido lending grinning support as a late addition hitman.

In some senses each of these films was built around its star – men want to be them, women want to be with them, you get the picture. The Rambling Guitarist is sort of the odd one out here as it’s of a slightly different strand than the other two with a lighter emphasis on crime and a shift from noir to western in terms of its overseas influences. Both Voice Without a Shadow and Red Pier lean much more towards film noir with Red Pier leaning a little more towards Europe than America. That said, The Rambling Guitarist is perhaps the weakest film on offer simply because of its up to the moment youth orientation which leaves it feeling a little more dated than the other two which can rely on their more classical style to find a modern appeal.

Each of these little seen gems would have been worthy of a solo buy in any case but finding them all offered in this fantastic new package from Arrow is a real treat. Each offered in stunning HD re-masters on blu-ray, even if they show their age in a couple of places the transfers are particularly fine and are likely to be the best these films will ever look. The Nikkatsu films from this era offered crowd pleasing thrills and good looking actors, but they were often also made by interesting directors who injected a little of their own individual, often youthful, flair to lift them well above the generic genre movies also on offer. That isn’t to say that each of their pictures was a smash hit, but the three on offer as part of this set are certainly each worthy of consideration even if for quite different reasons and if the included trailers for Vol. 2 are anything to go by we have even more undiscovered gems to look forward to in the future!


Nikkatsu Diamond Guys Volume 1 is out now on dual format DVD/blu-ray in the UK and USA courtesy of Arrow.