Nikkatsu Diamond Guys Vol.2

nikkatsu diamond guys 2Review of Arrow’s Nikkatsu Diamond Guys volume 2 up at UK Anime Network.

Following on from their previous release, Arrow return to Nikkatsu’s 1960s output with three more films which each star some of their “Diamond Guys” A-list stars, this time focussing again on Akira Kobayashi and Jo Shishido. In contrast to the three films featured in the Diamond Guys Vol. 1 set (Voice Without a Shadow, Red Pier, and The Rambling Guitarist), vol. 2 showcases Nikkatsu’s lighter side with three feel good tales each skewing much more towards comedy though still operating within the crime genre.

The first film in the set, Tokyo Mighty Guy, is, like The Rambling Guitarist, the first in what would later develop into a new film franchise lead by star Akira Kobayashi. After beginning with a kitsch musical sequence which would be at home in any Hollywood fluff fest of the era, the film takes on a neighbourhood comedy aesthetic as aspirant middle class guy Jiro becomes the big man around town. He’s well educated and has just returned from studying overseas in Paris but is working with his parents in a restaurant serving French cuisine which they have just opened in fashionable Ginza.

Jiro does as he pleases and doesn’t take any nonsense from anyone. He sends yakuza packing and helps a local bar owner sort out her financial and romantic problems (which are deeply intertwined) as well as the love life of one of her employees who’s been duped by a faithless rich guy. Western looking and modern in approach, this is a look at socially mobile city youth in 1960 just as the nation starts to push forward both economically and socially.

Danger Pays, by contrast, has less social commentary but takes on the challenging arena of the slapstick crime comedy. When a van containing watermarked paper destined for the mint is stolen, all the underworld is abuzz with petty crooks hoping to get their hands on Japan’s best forger. Eccentric trio “Glass Hearted Joe” (dapper dresser, extreme fear of the sound of scraping glass), Slide-Rule Tetsu (walks with a cane, likes maths), and Dump-Truck Ken (yeah, he has a dump truck) team up with martial arts enthusiast and former secretary Tomoko (Ruriko Asaoka) in a quest to get their hands on the (fake) money no matter what ridiculous scams they become involved in.

Quickfire slapstick humour at its finest, Danger Pays takes place in a cartoon-like world filled with bizarre stunts and ridiculous action. The breathless pace continues throughout but the tone shifts significantly in the final third as the gang find themselves trapped in a room which is about to be filled with gas and then holed up in an elevator shaft for an impromptu shootout. Despite the bodies and the blood the four continue with their ramshackle plotting but there are yet more surprises headed their way.

The surreal theme continues into the final film for the also Shishido starring Murder Unincorporated. When one of five local gangsters is assassinated by “Joe of Spades” and the remaining four fear they’re next on his hit list, they hire a selection of eccentric assassin bodyguards to find and neutralise their enemy. Each of the hitmen has his own theme and signature weapons running from European poetry to baseball and extreme fear of fish but their opposing numbers are equally strange and the gang is about to find out that the situation is even more complicated than they thought it might be.

Murder Unincorporated exists within a strange meta bubble in which hitmen recount their sorry origin stories to convince us that they had no choice but to become contract killers. Inspired by the famous Kansai comedian Kobako Hanato, the film runs at a ferocious pace with complex wordplay and increasingly surreal set pieces to create a truly absurd colourful and cartoon world that makes very little actual sense but is extremely funny.

Nikkatsu is best known for its action output but this latest collection proves the “borderless’ nature of the genre which isn’t generally associated with comedy. Gone are the melancholy heroes of volume one, these are figures of fun, but in the nicest possible way. Danger Pays and Murder Unincorporated both lean more towards the surreal whereas Tokyo Mighty Guy’s humour is of a more mainstream, wholesome kind, and the film definitely takes place in a more recognisably realistic world (though heightened and with an “aspirational” edge). Even if Seijun Suzuki famously got himself fired for making movies which made no sense and no money, Nikkatsu’s ‘60s output was not always against a touch of surreal playfulness as these intensely colourful, often silly escapades demonstrate with ample style.

Nikkatsu Diamond Guys vol. 2 is currently on sale from Arrow Films. You can check out more detailed reviews of each of the three movies below:

Murder Unincorporated (大日本殺し屋伝, Haryasu Noguchi, 1965)

0089_86_MURDER_UN-INCORPORATED“If you don’t laugh when you see this movie, I’m going to execute you” abacus wielding hitman Komatsu warns us at the beginning of Haryasu Noguchi’s Murder Unincorporated (大日本殺し屋伝, Dai Nihon Koroshiya-den). Luckily for us, it’s unlikely he’ll be forced to perform any “calculations”, and the only risk we currently run is that of accidentally laughing ourselves to death as we witness the absurd slapstick adventures of Japan’s craziest hitman convention when the nation’s “best” (for best read “most unusual”) contract killers descend on a small town looking for “Joe of Spades” – a mysterious assassin known only by the mole on the sole of his foot.

After the amusing Bond style opening, we witness the first victim of Joe of Spades who happens to be one of the five top gangsters in town. Sure enough, the other four then receive a threatening phone call to the effect that they’re next in line for a bullet in the brain. After ringing up an assassins agency and holding a series of auditions, the head honchos wind up with a gang of hitmen bodyguards each of whom have their own theme and wacky back story.

The leader of the gang is Heine Maki – a poetry loving, bowler hatted killer whose signature weapon is a heavy book of poems with a gun hidden inside,. He’s joined by O.N. Kane – an ex-baseball player who missed out on the major leagues through being too good and carries a baseball bat that’s really a gun, “Knife” Tatsu – ex-sushi chef knife thrower with an intense fear of fish, Al Capone III – a midget who claims to be the Japanese grandson of Al Capone and is obsessed with the Untouchables TV show, and of course Komatsu himself whose signature move is to throw his abacus in the air and invite chaos in the process.

The guys are really a little more than this small town can handle though they quickly discover the situation is nowhere near as straightforward as they thought and wind up facing off against some equally eccentric foes. That’s not to mention the mama-san at Bar Joker who turns out to be at the center of the case and a local mechanic who’s suspiciously handy with a pistol.

There really are no words to describe the quick fire, extremely zany universe in which Murder Unincorporated takes place. This is a world ruled by crime in which each of our “heroes” showcase extremely sad backstories which explain why they had absolutely no choice but to turn to killing people to survive. Take “Knife” Tatsu for example, he became a hitman because he was unable to kill the fish gasping away on his cutting board so he decided to kill people instead. O.N. Kane turned murderous after being let down in his baseball dream, Heine has a romantic tale of lost love, Capone III simply has it in the blood, and Komatsu? He wants to be a pharmacist…

This is all inspired by legendary Japanese funnyman Kobako Hanato who is famous for his Southern Japan flavoured absurd comedy routines. Kon Ohmura, who plays Komatsu, was one of his top collaborators for a time and became one of Japan’s all time great comedians. Meta quips such as remarking that the police are about to turn up “for the first time in this film” and involved jokes like the one that sees Komatsu tracking down identical “Joes” in varieties club, diamond, heart (amusingly, dressed as a geisha and playing pachinko), before heading into a punchline it would be a crime to spoil only add to the feeling that absolutely anything could happen and that would be perfectly OK.

Director Noguchi mostly keeps things straightforward but builds a fantastic comedic rhythm managing the quick fire dialogue and general absurdity with ease. Much of the film is told in flashback or reverie but the device never becomes old so much as easily syncing with with general tone of the film. There are some more unusual sequences such the opening itself, keyhole view, and a later sequence where we see directly though Komatsu’s big square glasses but otherwise the deadpan filming approach boosts the inherent comedy in the increasingly surreal situations. Quirky, oddly innocent, absurd, and just extremely laugh out loud funny, Murder Unincorporated is a world away from Nikkatsu’s po-faced crime dramas but exists in a crazy cartoon world all of its own that proves near impossible to resist!

Murder Unincorporated is the third and final film included in the second volume of Arrow’s Nikkatsu Diamond Guys box set.

Tokyo Mighty Guy (東京の暴れん坊, Buichi Saito, 1960)

Tokyo Mighty GuyThe bright and shining post-war world – it’s a grand place to be young and fancy free! Or so movies like Tokyo Mighty Guy (東京の暴れん坊, Tokyo no Abarembo) would have you believe. Casting one of Nikkatsu’s tentpole stars, Akira Kobayshi, in the lead, Buichi Saito’s Tokyo Mighty Guy is, like previous Kobayashi/Saito collaboration The Rambling Guitarist, the start of a franchise featuring the much loved neighbourhood big dog, Jiro-cho.

In this first instalment, Jiro (Akira Kobayashi) has just returned from some overseas study in Paris where, rather than the intellectual pursuits that he planned, Jiro mostly wound up with a love of French cuisine. His parents have just opened a small French restaurant in fashionable Ginza and Jiro is now working there too despite the more lucrative paths that might be open for someone with a college education, language skills and overseas experience.

Jiro is also a hit with the ladies, and the daughter of the family that run a nearby bathhouse, Hideko (Ruriko Asaoka), has quite a crush on him though Jiro seems fairly oblivious to this fact despite her revealing to him that her family have received an offer of arranged marriage. After a high ranking official crashes his car into the family restaurant, Jiro becomes embroiled in a series of complicated local political and shady business plots which conflict strongly with his righteous and individual nature.

Tokyo Mighty Guy begins with a cute musical title sequence that would be much more at home in a glossy musical of the time than in a smalltime gangster flick which is what lurks around the edges of this feel good, youthful tale. Indeed, Kobayashi gets ample opportunity to show off those pipes as he sings to himself alone in the male side of the bathhouse and later repeats snatches of the song throughout the film. There’s a single being peddled here, but it’s being done in a fun, if unsubtle, way.

Jiro is very much a man of his age. He’s the big man in the neighbourhood – middle class, educated, studied abroad, likes the finer things such as foreign food and sharp suits, but he’s got the words social justice engraved on his heart so you know you can go to him with your troubles and he’ll help you figure them out. He doesn’t take any nonsense from anyone; he sends the yakuza protection mob packing and even convinces one of them to go straight with a trainee chef job in his restaurant. No wonder the animal loving former politician has taken such a liking to him – he’s the kind of man it’s hard not to like.

That’s not to say Jiro’s a saint, he’s out for himself just like everyone else. We can see how much distress there is for others when we venture into a rundown tenement filled with the genuine poor who have too many children and not enough resources. Actually, the film isn’t terribly kind about these people and treats them more or less as an embarrassing joke but it does demonstrate how the bigwigs have exploited the needs of the lower orders in more ways than one. Jiro, at least, won’t stand for this kind of deception and misuse of traditional social bonds but he will still use it as leverage to bring things to a fittingly ironic solution that is to the benefit of everyone aside from those that were originally in the wrong.

Cute and quirky is definitely the theme and even where there are darker elements, the cheerful atmosphere is tailor made to eclipse them. Saito doesn’t roll out any particularly impressive directorial tricks but allows the absurd humour of the script to do his work for him, highlighting it with surreal touches such as the face of an absent lover appearing in the moon or the celebratory feeling of hundreds of advertising leaflets dropping from the sky like confetti. Light and fluffy as it is, Tokyo Mighty Guy is time capsule from the socially mobile youth of Tokyo in 1960 who don’t want arranged marriages or to take over the family business. The world has opened up for them with a new vista of foreign culture and multicultural cool. The message is clear, the future belongs to guys like Jiro, and by extension to the Jiro wannabes lining up to watch him prosper from their cinema seats.

Tokyo Mighty Guy is the first of three films included in the second volume of Arrow’s Nikkatsu Diamond Guys box set.