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.

 

The Rambling Guitarist (ギターを持った渡り鳥, Buichi Saito, 1959)

60030340Sometimes, just like an aimless drifter wandering into town, you feel as if you’ve come in during the second reel and missed some vital piece of information leaving you feeling a little at odds with the current situation. So it is with Buichi Saito’s The Rambling Guitarist (ギターを持った渡り鳥, Guitar wo Motta Wataridori) which is, apparently, the first film in a series though feels a little more like the second.

The film begins with a scene straight out of a classic western as the titular guitar toting wanderer, Taki (played by rising Nikkatsu star of the time Akira Kobayashi looking very fresh faced indeed), is fast asleep on the back of a cart travelling through an arid landscape with a mountain looming in the background before being woken by the driver who points him towards the nearest town. Having left the dry expanses on foot, Taki hasn’t been in Hakodate for long before he’s wrecked a local drinking establishment in a two on one bar brawl with a couple of drunken foreign sailors who were hassling the other musicians. This brings him to the notice of the crime kingpin Akitsu who offers him a job but Taki doesn’t like to linger and this kind of work’s not his thing so he passes. That is until a chance encounter with Akitsu’s pretty young daughter leads to a change of heart…

Akira Kobayashi went on to become one of the studio’s biggest action stars but here he’s every inch the pretty boy in a Brando-esque leather jacket and with a cooler than cool devil may care approach to life. The very epitome of the kind of pin-up star these films were created to sell, Taki is a noble, broken hearted drifter mournfully strumming along on his ever present guitar whenever the opportunity presents itself. Appealing to the rebellious side of post-war youth but still possessing a moral centre which places him on the side of right, Taki is the kind of youth hero you can still take home to mama.

Post set-up, The Rambling Guitarist drops most of its western tropes pretty quickly and falls back into a standard youth crime drama mould as Taki ends up joining the Akitsu gang who have a plan to build an amusement park on the quiet edge of the island to pull in a bit more tourist money. The snag is, there’s a small house and fishing company based there that they need to take out – the owners have a loan and are already in debt so it shouldn’t be too hard but Akitsu has neglected to mention that the house belongs to his sister (and her husband whom he doesn’t like very much).

Just when you thought everything was about to settle down, an old “friend” emerges from underneath a raincoat in the form of “Killer George” played by fellow Nikkatsu rising star, Jo Shishido. It’s from here on that we start to piece together some of Taki’s previous life and the reason he’s on this seemingly endless path of wandering from to place to place with no clear aim in sight. Things start to take a more generic turn as Taki and George dance around each other a little bit with Akitsu fuelling the fire by plotting behind both of their backs from the shadows. It’s a conventional narrative but acquits itself well enough.

Like the other films of the period, The Rambling Guitarist is built of bright, colourful and above all youthful fun. Consequently it has an energetic, freewheeling atmosphere coupled with a mildly nihilistic bent designed to appeal to the youth of the time. Aside from having some of the least realistic fight choreography ever committed to celluloid (that first bar brawl scene has some real howlers), The Rambling Guitarist proves an enjoyable embodiment of its genre but ultimately fails to build up the kind of emotional investment that would earn it a higher place on the list. A little bit disposable, perhaps, but nevertheless fun The Rambling Guitarist does at least leave you wanting to wander off and find your way to The Rambling Guitarist 2.


The Rambling Guitarist is the third (and final 😦 ) film included in Arrow’s Nikkatsu Diamond Guys Vol. 1 collection.

Red Pier (赤い波止場, Toshio Masuda, 1958)

Snapshot-2016-01-24 at 11_01_43 PM-1747507265Loosely inspired by Julian Duvivier’s 1937 gangster movie Pépé le Moko, Toshio Masuda’s Red Pier (赤い波止場, Akai Hatoba) was designed as a vehicle for Nikkatsu’s rising star of the time, Yujiro Ishihara – later to become the icon of the Sun Tribe generation. On paper it sounds like a fairly conventional plot – young turk of a gangster comes to town to off a guy, sees said guy killed in an “accident”, and shrugs it off as one of life’s little ironies only to accidentally become acquainted with and fall head over heals for the dead guy’s sister. So far, so film noir yet Masuda adds enough of his own characteristic touches to keep things interesting.

“Jiro the Lefty” (Yujiro Ishihara) is a sharp looking petty yakuza type in a bright white suit and sunglasses. Another of Japan’s post-war abandoned street kids, he found a home in a gang and has never known anything one could call a “normal” way of life. Other than his obvious talent with a gun, he has a cheerful and ironic personality that has him even almost respected by the police and is generally well liked in the area.

Early on Jiro rescues a little boy from almost being hit by a car and later when playing the harmonica for him gets hit by a thunderbolt of love when catching sight of the boy’s aunt, Keiko (Mie Kitahara). This causes him several problems at once: to begin with, she’s the sister of the guy he saw get hit by a crane and she doesn’t seem to know her brother was a gangster, two – Keiko is obviously of a much higher social class and a little out of his reach even if he managed to go straight, three – he can’t go straight, he doesn’t know how to do anything else, four – Mami, his current nightclub dancer “girlfriend” who’s invested a little more in the relationship than he has. Actually this is only the start of a long list of problems Jiro has to deal with, he just doesn’t know about them yet.

The story is set around the docks of Kobe where the living is hard and life is cheap. The local policeman is a fairly laid-back, ironic chap who’s made an odd sort of friendship with Jiro wherein he doesn’t really want to see anything too bad happen to him. He can see this thing with Keiko is not a very good idea and is constantly lurking in the shadows trying to control the situation as much as he can. Jiro, doesn’t know it yet but his own guys are out to get him too and after one of his sworn brothers ends up paying the price for Jiro’s rising profile in the yakuza world, he finds himself on the run from pretty much everyone.

This sounds like quite a complicated set up but Masuda manages to martial everything into a coherent order and even adds a hearty dose of realistic emotion too. As far as the aesthetic goes, Masuda takes his cues from American film noir with harsh lighting and canted angles all employed to show us the crookedness of this underground world but he also makes sure to add occasional touches of artistic flair such as the light bouncing off Jiro’s sunglasses during a night time cab ride or the sheer shock on Ishihara’s face as he first sees Keiko framed against the bright sunshine of Kobe’s harbour.

The too noble for his own good gangster who wants to go straight but knows he has a crooked heart – it’s an old story, but a good one. Red Pier pushes a lot of these ideas to the max but handles them well and adds a traditional “crime doesn’t pay” ending which is both endlessly sad and completely appropriate at the same time. You can’t help feel for Jiro and his small scale existential crisis in which the reluctant gangster wants to jump ship for more peaceful climes but can’t for both personal and societal reasons. Red Pier may not be the best Masuda/Ishihara collaboration but it is certainly an excellent example of everything its genre has to offer.


Red Pier is the Second film included in Arrow’s Nikkatsu Diamond Guys Vol. 1 collection.

Voice Without a Shadow (影なき声, Seijun Suzuki, 1958)

Snapshot-2016-01-24 at 10_45_06 PM-571365520
Make friends with this Oni mask – you will be seeing a lot of him throughout the film.

Seijun Suzuki might be best remembered for his surrealist pop art masterpieces from the late sixties or his even less comprehensible art films which followed his return to directing after settling his dispute with Nikkatsu, but everyone’s got to start somewhere and it comes as something of a relief to know that Suzuki was perfectly capable of making a straightforward movie if he wanted to. Voice Without a Shadow (影なき声, Kagenaki Koe) is exactly what it sounds like – a fifties style, US inspired noir however, Suzuki adds his usual flourishes and manages to wrong foot us pretty much the whole way through so that we never end up where we thought it was that we were going.

To begin with, our story is fairly straightforward. Reporter Ishikawa (Hideaki Nitani) provides our film noir style voice over as switchboard operator Asako (Yoko Minamida) accidentally dials a wrong number only have it picked up by a strange man who tells her she’s rung a crematorium then laughs hysterically. It turns out that the number was actually for a pawn shop which was in the process of being knocked over and the owner killed – Asako heard the perpetrator’s voice and thanks to her switchboard experience isn’t going to forget it. Ishikawa grows closer to Asako as the case becomes a media sensation but backs off after learning she’s already engaged.

Three years later Asako hears the voice again – a friend of her husband’s who keeps co-opting their living room for mahjong games that go on for days and cost everyone but him a lot of money. Before long Hamazaki (Jo Shishido) is found dead and Asako’s husband is the prime suspect but did he really do it? And if he didn’t, does Ishikawa really want to find out who did?

As you can see it’s a story that wouldn’t be out of place in any B movie noir from the fifties and the telephone set up is even a little reminiscent of Sorry, Wrong Number (though that film has a very different conclusion indeed). Based on a short story by Seicho Matsumoto, Voice, Voice Without a Shadow is full of the classic play of light and shadow that characterises the best film noir and the mood is ably supported by a suitably jazzy score from Hikaru Hayashi. If there’s a criticism to be made in this area, it’s that Nitani’s Ishikawa is a little too nice and pure hearted in comparison to the broken hearted heroes from the detective serials. He seems content to try and help Asako whilst uncovering the truth even if it ends up costing him in the end.

Although Asako herself is technically the leading character she quickly gets relegated to a more conventional woman in peril role. She is the one who recognises Hamazaki’s voice and the only clue linking him to the pawn shop murder three years ago but, while he’s alive anyway, Hamazaki is more interested in having fun terrorising everyone rather than trying to rub her out. In fact, the sudden demise of Hamazaki, played by an extremely young Jo Shishido, is one of the most surprising things about the film in which you’d expect him to remain the central antagonist right up until the grand finale.

Voice Without a Shadow is then a fairly conventional, noir inflected B movie which wears its Hollywood influences on its sleeve. However, there are glimpses of Suzuki’s individual style leaking through such as in his occasional and surprising use of double exposure, innovative composition and other modernist techniques which all help to lift the rather workmanlike script onto another level. In someways, it’s all a little too nice – even Hamazaki’s nasty lowlife activities are neatly skirted around almost like a film noir that’s been through a car wash though its strange pleasantness also has a nicely refreshing quality.

A minor film from the master of the surreal then, but an interesting one none the less. The mystery element proves satisfying even if it could do with a little more dirt under its fingernails and the committed performances also do their bit to enhance the mood. A prime example of its genre, Voice Without a Shadow is a notably restrained entry in Suzuki’s back catalogue but its classical style mixed with an offbeat, absurdist undercurrent make it one worth seeking out.


Voice Without a Shadow is the first film included in Arrow’s Nikkatsu Diamond Guys Vol. 1 collection.