Review: Nikkatsu Diamond Guys: Vol. 1 (Arrow Video Blu-Ray)
Before Nikkatsu got wrapped up in porn, the company released quite a few critically-acclaimed Japanese films during the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s. Arrow Video has been kind enough to bring some of the best to Blu-Ray, first with their releases of Retaliation and Massacre Gun and now with the Nikkatsu Diamond Guys: Vol. 1 collection. This Blu-Ray collects late ’50s gems Voice Without a Shadow, Red Pier, and The Rambling Guitarist in one set, from prominent Japanese directors. For this review, I’ve taken the liberty of watching and reviewing all three in their own contexts.
Voice Without a Shadow
1958’s Voice Without a Shadow comes from director Seijun Suzuki, known most notably for his film Tokyo Drifter and his style of surreal crime drama. This film was one of his early projects (his tenth), and it finds Suzuki slightly less experimental with a straight-forward murder mystery following a reporter named Ishikawa (Hideaki Nitani) who becomes obsessed with two murders that span three years. Part of it is inspired by Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder (released four years before this one), but Suzuki infuses the film with his own style and a fluid pacing that makes it stand out.
The compelling plot behind Voice Without a Shadow is that the antagonist has eluded police for some time; part of a murder that Asako (Yoki Minamida) overheard on a phone call three years before the current events of the film, crime boss Hamazaki (Jo Shishido) turns up again and finds himself the target of Asako’s husband’s ire and someone else’s foul play, and it prompts Ishikawa to do some investigation into the new murder of Hamazaki to get the inside scoop for his paper.
There are a lot of suspects, and Suzuki often throws people at the viewer without much introduction. His direction is fluid, and editing seems to cut out some important exposition before Ishikawa interrogates the next group of suspects. It’s a strong choice, though, because Voice Without a Shadow is heavy on dialogue as it is; it’s a slow-paced film that casually ramps up the tension, both with its unconventional detective (Ishikawa might be a cool dude but he isn’t as hardened as the criminals in the film) and the building of evidence against Asako’s supposedly innocent husband.
As stated earlier, Voice Without a Shadow is pretty straight-forward, however, and most contemporary audiences will figure out Asako’s husband didn’t commit the murder long before it’s actually exposed. But Suzuki’s mystery doesn’t hinge on this, and Voice Without a Shadow keeps the real murderer in the dark for so much of the film that it seems nearly impossible for the audience to deduce with the evidence provided. That might be a flaw for those looking to solve the mystery, but the twist in the film makes sense – it’s not completely out of thin air, since the viewer does meet the character once before.
The only real problem is that Suzuki wraps things up too quickly. Ishikawa’s detective work throughout Voice Without a Shadow is slow, steady, and thorough, but the final showdown and subsequent arrest of the real suspect are delivered through expository narration in much the same way the film’s noir narrative begins. The voice-overs are unnecessary, and one wishes Suzuki had found a way to uncover the real murderer without resorting to Ishikawa’s explanation of events.
Still, for those looking for a classic Japanese noir film, Voice Without a Shadow is surprisingly good. Its pacing plods, but watch for Suzuki’s skillful direction and shot choices; its soundtrack, too, keeps things interesting with the occasional tense swells and more comical fanfare. Voice Without a Shadow is a whisper from the dark that should entertain fans of Hitchcock’s mystery works.
In 1958, director Toshio Masuda commissioned cool bad boy Yujiro Ishihara to play main protagonist “Lefty” Jiro in his crime caper Red Pier, banking on Ishihara’s sex appeal and charm to give that character some likability despite his criminal background. The film centers on Jiro after he witnesses the murder of a man on a pier (hence the title), but its exploration shifts away from Jiro’s rough-and-tumble persona as he falls in love with the victim’s sister Keiko (Mie Kitahara) and finds himself the target of the Matsuyama crime family for no apparent reason. Masuda’s film, co-written by himself and Ichiro Ikeda, utilizes a heavy noir tone complete with Dutch angles and a strong saxophone-heavy score to provide the mood, and Red Pier offers up a number of intriguing situations that show Jiro’s attempts to get out of the drama of yakuza life hindered by both police and other criminals.
Masuda begins Red Pier with little explanation or exposition about Jiro; much of that is provided later by detective Noro (Shiro Osaka) to Keiko. It’s a smart move to throw the viewer into the situation, and Red Pier ambles forward with very little plot to ground its movement. But as Jiro begins to court Keiko, recognizing her as the sister of the man he saw killed on the pier, he realizes that his life is also in danger, putting those around him at risk. Masuda’s opening characterization of Jiro paints him as a cool but aloof bad guy, a criminal who’s good at his job and never gets caught because he gets other people to take the fall for him. That allows room for Jiro’s transformation from yakuza to family man, ultimately falling for Keiko and the other women around him in ways that usher in his downfall.
Red Pier follows Jiro closely, and Ishihara shows a lot of range in his role. Jiro’s not immediately respectable to the audience based on his past, and both Masuda’s direction and Ishihara’s acting helps to slowly win the viewer over. Red Pier is filled with characters even worse than Jiro, like the hitman Tsuchida (Hiroshi Hijikata) and yakuza member Katsumata (Hideaki Nitani), and Tsuchida particularly is a good foil for our main character.
While much of Red Pier focuses on Jiro’s characterization, Masuda integrates a number of tense yakuza stand-offs. The most effective comes from a long shot featuring Tsuchida and Jiro’s friend Teko in an alley during the port festival, both waiting for fireworks to start before they pull their weapon. Hijikata has a menacing presence that makes him a formidable opponent, and it’s all the more surprising when Jiro gets the drop on him only about halfway through the film.
That leaves more room to explore Jiro’s obsession with Keiko, though, and Masuda’s Red Pier leads up to an unrequited love story where Jiro is given the choice to escape from Kobe and avoid being arrested for murder or to see Keiko one last time. Whereas detective Noro is a bumbling cop for most of the film, his final plan to snag Jiro is emotionally compelling: Masuda cements how much Jiro has changed from the guy who used to throw other people under the bus to the man who willingly walks into a trap just to see Keiko one final time. Red Pier‘s finale drops the cool noir act, too, allowing Ishihara the chance to express Jiro’s vulnerability. It’s not all sad, though: Jiro still gets revenge on the Matsuyama gang in a vicious scene, shot from a distance with wide depth, when he brutally murders them in their club.
Masuda’s Red Pier is a stylish noir drama with quite a few interesting directorial choices. The visual flair and Ichihara’s rugged chic add style to the film, and the romance at the heart of this tale provides a spin on the usual bad-guy-turned-good formula. This Japanese yakuza flick is a strong offering from Masuda, and contemporary viewers should definitely take the plunge into this classic.
The Rambling Guitarist
The Rambling Guitarist comes from director Takeichi Saito, and is the start of Saito’s rambling series – known as wataridori in Japan, it’s a style of movie where the protagonist is a wandering musician getting into trouble in different areas of Japan. These rambling films are the equivalent of rōnin for 1950s audiences, men with no ties or ambitions who attracted the ladies with their soulful singing and guitar-play. Akira Kobayashi made a name for himself acting in a number of Saito’s films, and in The Rambling Guitarist, he plays Shinji Taki, a guy just looking for alcohol who finds himself drafted into Akitsu’s (Nobuo Kaneko) mob ring.
The appeal of films like The Rambling Guitarist is obvious: it would be nice to be able to drop all ties and jobs and wander the countryside doing what you love. And with Saito’s character Taki, he’s got a mysterious past that involves a dead woman and a prior job with the police. Saito explores these themes slowly, first allowing Taki to settle in with Akitsu and crafting a likable character out of him – he’s averse to bullying, and he only fights when he has to – while the rest of the time he spends playing his guitar and singing, or taking Akitsu’s daughter Yuki (Ruriko Asaoko) out for a walk and a drink.
Kobayashi’s a handsome guy, and he’s perfect for this guitarist/secret-identity cop. Yet The Rambling Guitarist‘s title also refers to the rambling nature of the film – Saito fails to pinpoint a plot for too long, flip-flopping between Taki’s seemingly random employment and Akitsu’s attempts to secure a new amusement facility. Despite its 77 minute running time, The Rambling Guitarist takes a long time to establish its direction and feels much longer than it truly is.
But once George (Jo Shishido) shows up with interest in Taki, things immediately take a turn for the better. Shishido, sporting a scar over his eye, is a perfect antagonist for Taki’s nonchalance. He takes things too seriously, bets on everything, and looks to pick fights when none are to be found. There’s a great tension between Taki and George that Saito builds on, culminating in a flashback reveal that shows Taki shooting George’s criminal friend in the back years earlier.
That rivalry drives The Rambling Guitarist forward, and its subplot is actually better than the main event. Taki and Akitsu eventually butt heads, and that pulls George and Taki together, working to take down the more dangerous mob boss rather than fighting against each other. It’s a testament to Kobayashi and Shishido that their relationship works so well, and despite the pacing flaws within The Rambling Guitarist, the duality between George and Taki shines through.
Saito’s film was the start of the wataridori trend, and the first in a series of films about rambling musicians, but it’s also a weak starting point. Its lack of direction throughout much of the first and second acts is a huge detriment to the finale’s climax. But Shishido and Kobayashi are the real attraction, a film that would be much more rambling if not for their interactions.
Arrow Video features all-new transfers of each of the three movies with newly translated subtitles. The video looks great, transferred from original film preservation elements by Nikkatsu, with none of the black-and-white flickering effects that one sometimes notices. There are a few flaws in the film here and there, and that’s expected with releases of this age. Also, Arrow notes that splice marks appear in each of the three films (sometimes noticeable) and that that is an accurate representation of actual theatrical presentation. All told, these transfers look gorgeous. Audio is presented in original mono and sounds very clear.
Bonus features, you ask? Three movies isn’t enough? Ah, well Nikkatsu Diamond Guys: Vol. 1 also features an introduction to both Hideaki Nitani and Yujiro Ishihara from Jasper Sharp, giving viewers a chance to hear the interesting background behind two of the Nikkatsu Diamond Guys. Sharp clearly knows his stuff, and it’s fascinating to listen to the history of Nikkatsu. This totals about 25 minutes, and Arrow also provides trailers and a gallery for each of the three films.
Also included in the box is a booklet of essays on all three films from Stuart Gilbraith IV, Mark Schilling, and Tom Mes respectively. The booklet itself is in full color and 40 pages long, and it offers a ton of information from prominent Japanese-film critics. That in itself is worth the price, and paired with three classic films, Nikkatsu Diamond Guys: Vol. 1 is a gem worth picking up.
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