NIKKATSU DIAMOND GUYS Vol 1 is another example of how Arrow Video, the UK distributor has emerged as one of the best reasons to buy a blu-ray player. They have found 3 fascinating examples from Nikkatsu’s Golden Age, a period from the mid 1950s to late 1960s, when Nikkatsu grabbed a group of assistant directors from the other studios, offering the opportunity to show their stuff as actual directors. They rose to the occasion, producing a steady stream of popular films that combined the best elements of noir, action, musicals and romance, all filtered through a veneer of cool that made contemporary American efforts seem a decade behind. These films are short and efficient, making up for their lack of studio glitz with beautiful cinematography and expert composition. Any one of the 3 films in this collection is a lesson in cinema that any lovers of the art form would do well to study.
If most Western genre fans think of Nikkatsu Studios at all, it is likely for their 17 years of Roman Porno or Pinku eiga epics, delivering the kind of films that will require a serious sit down talk with your family if they are ever discovered, such as FEMALE BANK TELLER: RAPE OFFICE, BEAUTIFUL TEACHER IN TORTURE HELL, FEMALE COLLEGE DORM VS NURSING SCHOOL DORMITORY and literally scores of others that are highly unlikely to get shown on The Family Channel. More recently they have emerged from bankruptcy to produce ultra low budget gore horrors like MUTANT GIRLS SQUAD and the insane HELLDRIVER.
This is the oldest film studio in Japan. They’ve been around since 1912. You think they might have a few gems in the vaults? NIKKATSU DIAMOND GUYS Vol 1 brings three of these to the home theater.
The Diamond Guys in question are 3 actors from the Nikkatsu stable, franchise players who gave the Japanese audiences, with the memories of World War II still inflicting a psychic scar, someone the men wanted to be and the ladies wanted to be with. The films found in the collected volume NIKKATSU DIAMOND GUYS Vol 1 are VOICE WITHOUT SHADOW, RED PIER and THE RAMBLING GUITARIST.
VOICE WITHOUT SHADOW – 1958
Director Seijun Suzuki was one of the studio’s top men, until he made, what may be now, one of Nikkatsu’s best known releases, BRANDED TO KILL. What is now recognized as a classic was so badly received by the studio they fired Suzuki on the spot. It says something about the freedom the directors were offered that it was possible for someone to make a movie and the studio suits had no idea what to expect until the finished product sent them screaming from the theater. Anyone expecting chiaroscuro cinematography and jarringly abrupt editing choices will likely be disappointed by what is a Hitchcockian murder mystery that only hints at the madness Suzuki would later unleash on unsuspecting audiences (and, more critically to his career, his bosses).
Asako Takahashi, a young telephone operator (Yoko Minamida)makes a wrong connection just in time to hear a laughing murderer gloat about his latest brutal killing. As the only “earwitness”, she has a few weeks of notoriety but after 3 years the case goes cold and is forgotten…until the night she entertains some of her husband’s sketchy friends and hears the voice once again…
It’s a nifty premise and it is perhaps to the film’s credit that it does not go where I would have predicted. An American film would have put the female protagonist front and center but here we spend a lot of time with the Diamond Guy du jour; Hideaki Nitani as intrepid newspaper reporter Ishikawa. Hey, remember when journalism guys were heroes? Right now journalists score about a 5% on the polls of who is trusted, sprawled in the gutter with reality TV stars and people Who Will Likely Be Your Next President, but there was a time when folks like Woodward and Bernstein and Kolchak kept us safe from vampires, gangsters and People Who Will Likely Be Your Next President.
The plot takes more than a few twists and turns, including Asako’s husband (who is, frankly, pretty worthless throughout) getting framed for murder. but it is not as engrossing as it could be. Ishikawa is a decent sort but most of the fun comes from the bad guys, especially chipmunk cheeked Jo Shishido, who would hone his menacing charisma into a career. In his performance and the clever use of camera angles, you can see where Suzuki would take the gangster films, but here they provide just a tantalizing glimpse of what would come. As is, this is the squarest of the 3 films; even the expected love triangle never materializes, though one gets the sense that Ishikawa carries a serious torch for Asako, but is far too honorable to do anything about it. The other two Diamond Guys would have given him wedgies in the boy’s locker room.
The Nikkatsu films of the Golden Age demanded a technical and creative standard far beyond their low cost. The noir is deep and dark and every shot is excellently, occasionally brilliantly, composed, taking full advantage of the widescreen format. Arrow’s presentation is as good as it is likely to get, showing off the blu-ray quality to its full advantage. One caveat; with every edit we see a small splice line at the top of the image. Some might find it distracting, though for me it brought back memories of a time when cutting film required you to actually cut film. You really made sure you got it right the first time. Kids today, with their digital video and nondestructive editing software…(This has been another OLD MAN YELLS AT CLOUDS production).
RED PIER – 1958
One thing I like about non-Hollywood movies is their ability to cast folks who are far from the Vogue magazine idea,l and snaggle-toothed Yujiro would hardly be my first choice as the epitome of cool…but when he puts on his dark sunglasses and smirks you can see why director Toshiro Masuda chose him to portray the likable criminal Lefty. He has an undeniable charisma and the fact that the other gangsters he hangs out with are far worse, makes him the closest thing to a hero the film has to offer (in a weird twist, the main cop in the story is mostly a hapless goof who hangs out with Lefty like an outcast who wants to be seen with the cool kids). The plot somewhat escapes me; it opens with a crane accident at the pier witnessed, but not caused, by Lefty. He soon falls for the sister of the dead man and then the mobsters target him for reasons lost on me. Well, who cares, the important thing is that the film is drenched in noir elements; dutch angles, beautiful compositions, sexy nightclub dancers and lots of saxophone.
It’s a lot of style over substance but it’s a very good style and a good bit more interesting than most of what was being churned out by the American studios of the same period.
THE RAMBLING GUITARIST – 1959
I saved this one for last because the description made it obviously the least interesting one in the group, which proves, yet again, that I have no clue about this “reality” thing people speak of.
This is an Elvis movie. Set in the West. West Japan.
Our Elvis is Shinji, a rambling guitarist, which should come as no surprise, I mean, that’s the name of the movie. You’re not one of those folks who was shocked to discover the victims in THE MUMMY were all killed by a mummy, were you? Anyway, Shinji rambles into town and almost immediately gets into a barfight with a couple of surly American douche canoes. The way the Americans act and dress I suspect the filmmakers were relying on Popeye cartoons. The fights are terribly staged, with blows that do not come within an area code of connecting, yet send the supposed recipient of these punches of doom sprawling. It’s a little inexplicable since the director Buichi Saito, also directed LONE WOLF AND CUB: BABY CART IN PERIL which had some awesomely choreographed carnage. But it’s all good. When you are basically doing a knock-off of King Creole, nobody is expecting much. It’s not like Elvis ever got confused with Bruce Lee.
At any rate, Shinji basically just wants to ramble, drink, and beat people up, but when he meets the daughter of Akitsu, the local crime boss, he is smitten and signs on as musical muscle, which seems like a pretty bad idea, all things considered. Akitsu turns out to be a real dick as well, trying to ruin his own sister’s life for marrying a guy he did not approve of (in his defense, the husband is pretty much a loser). Further complicating Shinji’s life, who shows up–why it’s Jo Shishido again, this time with a scar going down one of his chubby cheeks. He plays a character named George. Ok. George is a loose cannon who knows Shinji from somewhere but can’t put his finger on where. At some point he remembers and you have to wonder how interesting a life George must lead because the event in question should have seared Shinji’s face in his memory.
This movie is great. It’s the only one of the 3 in color and this is super bright MGM musical color, just a candy coated palette that pleases the eye, as does the (once again) excellent composition of the cinematography. In all seriousness, I would recommend these films to aspiring filmmakers to watch sans subtitles, just to see how talented craftsmen can use the visual techniques of film to tell a story.
This film spawned a series of re-imaginings, set in various locales and time periods, mostly with the same cast. Yep, he rambles into another town and once again falls in love with a woman who looks like Ruriko Asaoka, stuff happens and then he leaves at the end, presumably to ramble some more. This is another one of those times when one’s western sensibility may clash with that of what the people were watching in 1959 Japan. To my eyes, Akira Kobayashi often looks like he’s about to burst into tears at various points in the film, but everybody else seems to think he’s the epitome of cool, so who am I, a former AV Club nerd, to argue otherwise?
Watching these made me wonder about why they were so well received by Japanese audiences of the time. Here we are, just a bit more than a decade removed from destruction and defeat and just a few years since the end of the occupation. Japan had been shattered and the need to rebuild and just stay alive forced many people to rely on the black markets and the gangsters who ran them. Throughout these films is a common thread of ordinary Japanese families caught in the web of loan sharks and petty strong-arm thugs. The Diamond guys, with their more modern attitudes and disrespect for authority, probably resonated well with a youth that had grown up in a culture that had been nearly brought to utter ruin by the previous generation.
So lots of fodder for that films studies class paper you were supposed to write this week, and for the rest of us, a terrific introduction to a studio that really knew how to make nifty genre pictures that might have pushed Hollywood a bit faster into the rebellious sixties, had they been given a wider release.
There are some small but welcome extras provided by Arrow, including trailers for upcoming films in this series. MURDER UNINCORPORATED, with Jo Shishido (!) looks particularly worthwhile, by which I mean it looks seriously nuts.
Special Edition Contents
- Limited Edition Blu-ray collection (3000 copies)
- High Definition digital transfers of all three films, from original film elements by Nikkatsu Corporation
- High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) and Standard Definition DVD presentation
- Original uncompressed mono audio
- Newly translated English subtitles
- Specially recorded video discussions with Japanese cinema expert Jasper Sharp on Diamond Guys Hideaki Nitani and Yujiro Ishihara
- Original trailers for all three films and trailer preview for Diamond Guys Vol. 2
- Extensive promotional image galleries for all three films
- Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Graham Humphreys
- Booklet featuring new essays on all three films and director profiles by Stuart Galbraith, Tom Mes and Mark Schilling