Nikkatsu Diamond Guys Volume 1 Blu-ray Review: Action Heroes ’50s Japanese Style

The Nikkatsu Diamond Guys title comes from a marketing scheme from nearly 60 years ago. Nikkatsu is a studio in Japan, and they were looking for a new way to promote their movie stars in the late 50s, so they created the Nikkatsu Action Series, with the “Diamond Line” of “Mighty Guys”. Arrow has put three of these pictures into a Blu-ray and DVD release, Nikkatsu Diamond Guys Volume 1. Unrelated in story, theme, or director, (though they all involve crime stories) what connects them is the studio, and the era in which they were shot.

The three movies are Voice Without a Shadow, directed by Seijun Suzuki, Red Pier by Toshio Masuda, and The Rambling Guitarist by Buichi Sato. The best known of these directors in America is probably Seijun Suzuki thanks to his wild pop-art latter day films for Nikkatsu (which ultimately got him fired from the studio.) However, he was not one of the top tier directors at Nikkatsu, and he made dozens of workman-like films for the studio – Voice Without A Shadow was one of four movies he made in 1958 alone. Shot in black and white, it’s an adaptation of a short story by a well-regarded Japanese mystery writer Seicho Matsumoto. A wrong number puts telephone operator Asako on the line with a killer. Three years later, while her husband is being hustled out of his money by a local gangster and his nightly, apparently mandatory mah jong game, Asako recognizes the voice again: it’s the gangster. Days later, her husband comes in out of the rain, covered in blood, saying he beat the gangster up. The next day, the gangster is found dead, and Asako’s husband is arrested for the crime.

While the first half of the film is Asako’s story, the second half belongs to the first of our “Diamond Guys”, Hideaki Nitani. Half a decade older than the other two “Diamond Guys”, Nitani looks it. He blends into scenes rather than takes them over with youthful energy. In Voice Without A Shadow, he plays a newspaper man who may not be certain of Asako’s husband’s innocence, but he does secretly love Asako. It’s a distinctly one sided romance, but Nitani’s investigation into the murder takes him to the underbelly of the local Yakuza, and leads to the strangest sequence in all three movies, one that prefigures Seijun Suzuki’s more daring filmmaking reputation. When a man tells Nitani where he was at the time of the murder, we see an odd flashback. It starts with the angle going Dutch in the frame, and then cuts to a strange montage that includes chicken plucking and dog strangling (we see the dog later – he’s okay.) It’s like Suzuki seized his one chance to act out in an otherwise straightforward, albeit entertaining, little thriller.

Red Pier opens with a scene that’s emblematic of the movie as a whole: a man is led into a death trap set up by gangster “Lefty” Jiro (“Diamond Guy” Yujiro Ishihara): on a loading dock, a crane goes wild and smashes the man (off-screen.) After the death, Jiro laments: “why couldn’t it have been cooler?” to the annoyance of his fellow gangster. See, this takes place in Kobe, where Jiro has been sent from Tokyo. He’s been living at the largesse of his country gangster brothers (though Kobe is hardly the country – it just isn’t Tokyo) and likes to show them up. This doesn’t win him many friends: besides a young gangster who idolizes him and follows him wherever he goes, Jiro’s most constant companion is detective Noro, a Kobe cop who really likes Jiro, and really wants to be the one to put him away for the rest of his life.

Jiro complicates his life by falling in lust, and eventually in love with Keiko, another transplant from Tokyo who came to help out her sister-in-law after her brother died. (That brother, of course, was Jiro’s victim in the first scene.) A complicated plot of romance and crime plays out, as Jiro tries to reconcile his desire to be free of his past with his equal passion for Keiko, who could never forgive what happened to her brother.

Of the three films, Red Pier has the most assured story and the fastest pace, despite having the longest running time. Director Toshio Masuda draws his characters with broad brushes, but also clean lines: the character are distinct and fun, the action makes great use of location, and the black and white photography is gorgeous.

The only color film of this set is The Rambling Guitarist, starring Akira Kobayashi. In this contemporary Western set in northern Japan that ended up being first of a nine part series, Kobayashi’s Taki wanders into town with every intention of wandering back out again. He’s got a tragic past, secrets, and is great in a fight, with his fists or a gun. He’s basically a western Gunslinger who can’t outrun his talents or his past. He ends up working as hired muscle for the local gangster, but when he’s sent to clear out a piece of property his boss wants to buy, he spends more time talking to his would-be victims than attacking them. The boss’s daughter falls in love with Taki, but another new hired gun who comes into town recognizes Taki from the past, and is determined to kill him… when their work is done.

That hired gunman is played by scene stealer Jo Shishido. Best known in the West for this work with Seijun Suzuki on Branded to Kill and Youth of the Beast (though he also shows up as the gangster-victim in this box set’s Voice Without a Shadow) Shishido is instantly recognizable for his surgically enlarged cheekbones, and his almost palpable sense of insouciance he brings to every role. 10 years later, Jo Shishido, Akira Kobayashi, and Hideaki Nitani would all-star together in another Nikkatsu production, Retaliation.

All three of these “Diamond Guys” showcases are decent entertainments (I would put Red Pier at the top of the pack). But beyond being fun films, they also serve as great windows into the past. In the late 50s, Japan was finally pulling itself out of the economic morass of the war. It’s always interesting to me to see how the country was modernizing (in some aspects, Westernizing) while maintaining its identity. The closeness of the rural and the urban in particular always strikes me. At least in Japanese movies, mountains and rice fields and muddy roads are just a couple minutes journey from any city.

And Arrow has, again, showered attention on a trio of minor Japanese films that rival the best home video producers out there. There are three films on one Blu-ray (a total of 269 minutes of video not including extras) but the presentation did not seem to suffer for the crammed disc. Also included on the disc are trailers for each of the films, trailers for films in the next Diamond Guys set, and a pair of video discussions from Jasper Sharp about Hideaki Nitani and Yukiro Ishihara. The included booklet has nearly 40 pages of pictures and essays about the films, the actors, and the directors. Another class package from Arrow, worth the time of any Japanese cinephile.

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Kent Conrad

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