Bringing three great Japanese films to collectors in fine form, Nikkatsu Diamond Guys Volume 1 comes highly recommended thanks to all three films being worth a watch for more reasons than the trio of actors featured on that cover art.While not flawless, seeing more Japanese cinema from the 50’s is an excellent thing if you in to expanding your cinematic horizons.
As all three of these flicks were new to me, it was quite pleasing to come away from this collection wanting to see more of what the directors and stars did over time. Longtime fans of the country’s movies will see some familiar faces in all three films, so the collection also works in that “spot the character actor” game we all play when we see a new film for the first time.
Seijun Suzuki’s 1958 mystery drama Voice Without A Shadow kicks things of with a noir-ish tale of Asako, a former newspaper phone operator who quit her job shortly after accidentally ringing up a killer in the middle of his dirty work. Three years later, Asako’s husband has a few work pals over for dinner and Asako recognizes one man’s voice as that of the killer. Talk about awkward dinner conversation! She has a minor breakdown, but things get worse when the killer turns up dead himself and Asako’s husband seems to be the prime suspect. In the middle of all this comes Ishikawa (Hideki Nitani), a reporter for that aforementioned newspaper. He had a crush on Asako back when she worked at the paper, but stepped aside when he discovered she was spoken for. Is his interest in the unsolved murders a new play for Asako’s intentions or is there some sort of actual journalistic integrity at work that will bring the killer of the killer to justice?
Suzuki’s later films have an often chaotic feel and a sense of randomness to them that divide his fan base, but the early work makes great use of restraint and a nice nod to Hitchcock’s style of film making. The director does get in a few stylistic touches (Asako’s writhing when she flashes back to the killer’s voice, some nice Dutch angled shots that make a villainous meeting more so) and the performances are all solid throughout. Granted, things do get a bit melodramatic and there’s a shift to a different character some may not see coming. But it’s all good in a film that fans of crime dramas should appreciate as they put their own clues together.
My favorite film of the set, Toshio Masuda’s 1958 crime drama Red Pier is a showpiece for Yujiro Ishihara as “Lefty” Jiro, a yakuza who’s not giving up his lifestyle even with a laid back but by the book detective on his trail. He falls for the daughter of a rival but his current flame, an exotic dancer who seems to sideline as a lady of the evening, isn’t about to be dumped at all. Lefty’s gun fetish almost does him in a few times and he manages to get the best of everyone who comes after him, but the wheels are turning against him as he’s double-crossed by those he least expects. Masuda uses some fine in-camera effects to good effect with a zoom lens in a few spots and a tilting camera getting a workout in a few scenes where disorientation is part of a scene.
The story does hit a pedestrian period past the midpoint, but it all fits in with the well-played finale that doesn’t quite go as you’d think. Ishihara’s nattily dressed style and unsentimental, unrepentant behavior is tempered by his love of the port area he plies his trade in and how well he gets along with the man who wants him off the streets for his crimes. He’s also got a soft spot for his ladies, but that’s one of the things that’s not good for a gangster (as you film fans all know). And yes, Lefty does sing in one scene that ends up somewhat comical and tragic simultaneously because he’s about to get a shock that kicks him into revenge mode for the rest of the movie’s running time.
The final film, Buichi Saito’s 1959 The Rambling Guitarist is a modern take on the American western to the point that the film bends over backwards a few times to make that point. It works well and Saito gets some fine performances out of his cast. Akira Kobayashi stars as the titular guitar-slinger with a past he’s trying hard to run from. But par for he course, he’s caught up in some stuff he can’t control, there are women and guns involved and while a bit predictable as to where it all goes, it works just fine for what it is. The great thing here is fans of westerns will “get” this film entirely and find the Japanese culture added to the mix intriguing enough to want to explore more films of this type. Of course, if you’re all ponied out on the genre, this one may seem like a last round-up of sorts. There were a total of nine Wanderer (Wataridori) films made from 1959 to 1962, so it’s pretty obvious Japanese audiences were all over this series from the start.
Arrow get all three films out in nice 2K restorations with new subtitles and excellent sound. Special features include profiles of two of the three Diamond Guys, trailers not only for all three films here, but for the next three films in the Diamond Guys series. I won’t spoil those other than to say that comedy that looks like It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World meets a murder mystery had better be as wacky and weird as the trailer because my eyeballs were asking my brain if it were seeing something else. We shall see, of course. Anyway, go snap up this trio of gems wherever you buy your collection from, I say.