Japanese cinema is samurai showdowns, tough gangster pictures, or calm, quietly devastating domestic dramas. Kurosawa, Ozu, Mizoguchi. Oh, and Godzilla. Maybe a few decades of nothing for a while, then long-haired ghosts and incredibly violent weird movies by Takashi Miike. That’s what the industry and art form looked like to even an interested observer not too long ago. There were a few other movies that came in through the cracks (Afterlife in the late ’90s, Kitano’s fireworks before that) but the vision of Japanese cinema, internationally, was fairly stable for a long of film enthusiasts.
With their Nikkatsu releases in general, and these Diamond Guys collections in particular, Arrow Video is helping to usher in a very different view of what Japanese movies were, particularly the average domestic program, the movies that were never meant to go out onto the arts festival circuit, or be watched by someone living 5000 miles away, almost six decades after they were made. Movies like the ones in Nikkatsu Diamond Guys Volume 2 were the product churned out by a studio system in its last years, desperate to keep a shrinking audience who were getting into this new-fangled TV thing (which saturated Japan at a later date than it had in the West.)
The Diamond Guys of the collection refer to the stable of actors who would star in the Nikkatsu studios films. This collection features two of these Diamond Guys, Jo Shishido and Akira Kobayashi. Jo might be the more familiar face in the west (particularly for his collaborations with Seijin Suzuki in Branded to Kill, and for his implanted puffy cheeks) but Akira Kobayashi was the bigger star in Japan, with a singing career to go along with his acting. Also, two of the movies in this collection feature the cute, diminutive Ruriko Asaoka as the female lead.
The first volume of Nikkatsu Diamond Guys were strictly crime films. While there are gangsters and fights in every single one of the movies in this collection, there’s no way they can be fairly called crime films. Weird-ass comedy is a better genre designation.
The first film, Tokyo Mighty Guy starring Akira Kobayashi is the least crazy of the movies, though it is also the one most unlike any Japanese film I’ve seen. It begins with a musical number with the actors playing against a hand-drawn background. Kobayashi is the titular Mighty Guy, Jiro, who lives by a strict moral ethos. Kind of a bullying anti-bully, he will stand up to anyone whom he thinks is misbehaving, including Yakuza who try and hustle money from his parent’s restaurant, or an old politician whose car smashes into that same restaurant, later the same day. He refuses to show typical Japanese deference to authority. His unyielding personality is so impressive, the old man rebuilds the restaurant, and one of the Yakuza immediately quits his life of crime to become Jiro’s sous chef. The rather elliptical story revolves around a local brothel, the arranged marriage of a local girl (Asaoka) who is desperately in love with Jiro, and some political shenanigans revolving around land deals. It has a wry sense of humor, occasionally turning into a farce.
More farcical still is Danger Pays, a caper comedy starring Jo Shishido as one of three hangers-on in the criminal world who, upon hearing of the theft of 1.08 billion yen’s worth of blank currency paper, has the bright idea to find Japan’s greatest counterfeiter to make use of it. So do two other associates of Jo’s – “Slide Rule” Tetsuzo and “Dump Truck” Ken. Shishido’s nickname is “Glass-Hearted” Jo (Jo Shishido’s characters in his movies are almost invariably also named Jo) – and altogether they end up too late to kidnap the counterfeiters before the paper thieves get to him. Hijinks ensue. Eventually a secretary and Judo and Aikido Expert (Asaoka again) starts tagging along, and all four get themselves in deeper and deeper trouble with the Yakuza. More swiftly paced than Mighty Guy, Danger Pays has some wild shifts in tone. The old counterfeiter insists on working in a strip club, so the Yakuza install him in a room with a glass ceiling beneath the club, so he can watch from below as a woman writhes against the glass (no nudity in any of these films, but the dancing this girl is… interesting) Later, there’s a shootout that ends in a massacre, and the piles of corpses and dripping blood seem like something better suited to a dark Yakuza movie, not the light whimsy that this generally more innocent caper film is aiming for.
Neither of these films fit into the paradigm that one might associate with Japanese cinema, but nor do they prepare the audience for the just downright doofiness of the final film in the collection: Murder Unincorporated. The Japanese title translates to The Legend of Murder Across Japan, and neither of them give a clue as to the weirdness within. In one port town, the five bosses of a Yakuza group are being killed, one by one, by a mysterious assassin named Ace of Spades Joe (and yes, Jo Shishido is in this movie, how’d you guess?) In order to protect themselves, the Yakuza hire 10 assassins to find Joe and protect them until he’s brought down. These assassins are weird comic book creations. There’s an obsessive poet, a Tokyo Giants fan with a rifle in his baseball bat, and a dwarf who insists he’s Al Capone’s grandson, and who looks so much like a little Japanese boy I didn’t realize he wasn’t a kid until I read one of the essays in the accompanying book. A rival Yakuza group hires their own assassins who are equally comic book themed. The action that follows, including multiple assassinations, counter-assassinations, attempted poisonings, and the like are all pitched at a kind of grade-school level of humor. As a comedy, this Westerner could barely make heads or tails of Murder Unincorporated. As a film-viewer, I suppose it was kind of fascinating, watching something for which I lacked most context.
The writer of the film was an extremely successful comic writer. Many of the actors were big comedians of the day. Perhaps it was something like a small-scale It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World for Japan (an American movie, for the record, which I found interminable.) It is filled with people who had long comic careers in Japan.
Judged as comedies, I laughed the most in Mighty Guy and found Danger Pays the most entertaining of these three movies. As a cineaste interested in really understanding Japanese cinema, these movies offer a unique and interesting perspective. They’re not like much that has been widely released in the West before. As strict entertainment, they’re harder to recommend.
Arrow Video has done a typically excellent job of providing context for the movies in the extras provided. There are two 10-minute video essays about the male stars, Akira Kobayashi and Joe Shishido. Both essays are by Jasper Sharp, Japanese Cinema expert who has brought illuminating commentary to many other Arrow Video releases. There are also print essays on each of the films in the booklet, written by critics Tom Mes, Stuart Gailbraith IV, and Mark Schilling, who literally wrote the book on Nikkatsu Action films. This release comes on three disks (one Blu-ray, and two DVDs with the same content).