DirectorSeijun Suzuki, Toshio Masuda, Buichi Saito
Release Date(s)1958-59 (January 26, 2016)
Studio(s)Nikkatsu (Arrow Video)
- Film/Program Grade: B
- Video Grade: B-
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: B
In the mid-1950s, Nikkatsu had the contradictory status of being Japan’s oldest movie studio and a sort of latecomer to the kind of contemporary genre filmmaking that was beginning to flourish. That’s because for several decades previous Nikkatsu had been relegated almost exclusively to distribution and exhibition, with little or nothing to speak of in the way of production. When the company got back into making its own films, one order of business was to cultivate its own stars, three of whom – Hideaki Nitani, Yujiro Ishihara, and Akira Kobayashi – were known as “Diamond Guys.” These actors, like most Japanese stars of the time, made an astonishing number of films – Nitani, for example, appeared in 22 movies in one year – but Arrow Video’s new Nikkatsu Diamond Guys Volume 1 collection is a most welcome introduction for the uninitiated viewer. It contains one film per Diamond Guy, and if these aren't necessarily the very best movies these actors starred in (or that their directors directed), they’re still an effective gateway drug before one encounters the deeper, more audacious pleasures of films like Tokyo Drifter (1966).
That film was directed by Seijun Suzuki and starred Nitani, both of whom collaborated earlier on 1958’s Voice Without a Shadow, the first film in this collection. It’s also the best, telling a peculiar but compelling story that constantly changes directions, beginning with a telephone operator (played by Yoko Minamida) who mistakenly hears the voice of a murderer when she connects a call incorrectly. When the operator hears the voice again three years later, it belongs to a gangster her husband is in business with, and thus begins an unpredictable chain of events unified by reporter Nitani, who is determined to get to the truth behind a murder connected to the operator and her husband. The second movie in the collection, Red Pier (also 1958) is a loose remake of Julien Duvivier’s 1937 crime film Pepe le Moko, reinvented as a vehicle for Diamond Guy Yujiro Ishihara. Ishihara, at the time Nikkatsu’s most popular star, plays an assassin in hiding after a big job who falls for a local girl only to discover that her brother is his latest target. The film is one of a whopping 25 collaborations between Ishihara and director Toshio Masuda, and Masuda clearly knew how to showcase his leading man; the movie is a smooth, cool love letter to Ishihara’s rebellious charm.
1959’s The Rambling Guitarist rounds out the set, and it's a colorful urban crime film with a heavy Western influence thanks to director Buichi Saito’s liberal borrowings from John Ford. Akira Kobayashi, who would go on to appear in the essential Battles Without Honor and Humanity, stars as the title character, a wandering musician with a secret past who winds up caught in the middle of a mob dispute. A massive hit at the time, Guitarist would yield eight sequels and become a hugely successful series. It’s easy to see why; like the other two movies in this set, it’s an energetic exercise in style that’s filled with dynamic camera movements, eye-pleasing compositions, and powerfully visceral action sequences. What’s interesting about all three of these films is that they weren’t exactly remarkable; there were dozens of others just like them at the time, and in a sense they represent apprentice work for both their directors and their actors. Yet one wishes more “expert” auteurs could as consistently breathe life into old formulas as the Nikkatsu contract directors did – these are all extremely entertaining films.
The transfers of all three titles are solid, with the exception of one major blunder that mars both of the black and white titles (Voice Without a Shadow and Red Pier). For whatever reason, these two films aren’t matted properly, so that every time there’s a cut the splice lines from the negative are apparent at both the top and bottom of the frame. It’s extremely distracting, and unfortunate given how strong the picture and audio are otherwise. On the plus side, the set includes two interviews (totaling about 25 minutes) with Japanese film scholar Jasper Sharp that provide excellent context for the films in the collection. All of the content is included on both a Blu-ray disc and a pair of standard-definition DVDs, which come nicely packaged with a comprehensive booklet containing superb essays on each of the three movies.
- Jim Hemphill