Arrow is really on a roll here with another excellent box-set highlighting Nikkatsu studios, this time focusing on some of the leading men with Nikkatsu Diamond Guys Vol. 1 (Vol. 2 is also available and will be covered in a future edition of Arrow Heads). This set features a trilogy of films all featuring three different actors in different genres that give the viewer a great crash course in Japanese cinema. The common thread here is the set is named as such since the stars of these particular films were such big draws for the studio they nicknamed them the “Diamond Guys,” and after checking out this set it’s easy to see why.
The set starts strong with Voice Without a Shadow, an excellent Hitchcockian Murder Mystery directed by Seijun Suzuki that revolves around Asako (Yoko Minamida or Auntie from House), a switchboard operator for the local paper who takes a call that changes her life. Known for her excellent memory and voice recognition, Asako connects a call to a pawnshop late one evening only to hear a voice she doesn’t recognize tell her she has accidentally called a crematorium and laugh fiendishly. We later find out the pawnshop was robbed and both of its owners were killed. After a brief fruitless investigation we then jump three years into the future, with Asako poor and married to man who has gotten himself involved in the Yakuza to make ends meet.
Asako is forced to host all night mahjong parties where she serves tea to the men who lose upwards of 50,000 yen a night to the mysterious Mr. Hamazaki (Jo Shishido). When he is late to show one night Asako is instructed to call him and hears that very same voice from the pawnshop. When Asako tells her husband and begs him to leave the Yakuza, he comes home savagely beaten the following evening saying that he had won a fight with Hamazaki. The next day, however, Hamazaki is found dead and her husband is now the prime suspect. So Asako joins forces with a reporter (Diamond Guy Hideaki Nitani) to not only solve the mystery of just who killed the killer, but also find out if he in fact was the man from the pawnshop murder.
The film then switches gears as it focuses on the reporter and his task at hand and evolves from this surreal psychological thriller into more or a noir-ish whodunit as the reporter attempts to uncover the truth to save Asako’s husband. The film was based on a story by one of Japan’s greatest writers and is an engrossing murder mystery that was very reminiscent of some of Hitchcock’s best in how it incorporates the psychological elements as we see Asako haunted by the voice in a very surreal cinematic fashion almost to the point of madness. I loved Voice Without a Shadow; it was a surprisingly smart thriller and hands down my favorite film on the set.
Next up was Red Pier AKA: Red Quay from director Toshio Masuda starring diamond guy Yujiro Ishihara as Jiro the “Lefty,” a Yakuza from Tokyo who is now the big fish in a small pond, which is a small Kobe shore town. The film starts off with Jiro having a local drug dealer killed when a crane “accidentally” falls on him after a drug run. (This odd method of killing a person strangely enough happens twice in the same set.) When the recently departed’s sister Keiko comes to town to help the grieving family get through the rough time, Jiro falls hard for the woman who has no idea what happened to her brother or his part in the killing.
As Keiko begins to uncover the truth behind her brother’s death a mysterious man appears in the small town looking to take out Jiro. This is all amidst a love triangle which occupies the first two acts of the film as Jiro’s previous girlfriend, the feisty dancer Mami, is none too happy with Jiro’s obsession with Keiko. As an all out war breaks out in the town between Jiro and the stranger, we soon find Mami understands exactly what it means to be the girlfriend of a Yakuza more so than the naïve Keiko. Jiro sees in Keiko and her son a life he can never have due to his loyalty to the Yakuza.
Red Pier, which is supposedly a remake of Pépé le Moko, is a great introduction to the Yakuza genre. While Jiro has his own desires and wants, we soon find he is still a man who puts his honor and his loyalty to his brothers above even his own life and happiness, which is what drives the chaotic third act of the film. Yujiro Ishihara is the driving force behind this film, and he plays an amazing anti-hero. He really does a great job at encompassing that struggle between his loyalty for his family and his dream of a normal life. Its definitely got some fun twists and turns and delivers a very fun and satisfying jaunt into the Yakuza genre.
Last up is The Rambling Guitarist. This is a strange film that plays out like your normal heartthrob guitar slinger musical; except instead of fighting the establishment while he has the ladies swooning to his sweet songs of rebellion, he joins the Yakuza and falls for the big boss’s daughter. It’s kind of ridiculous, and gets even more so as we find out more about our protagonist Taki, played by Diamond Guy Akira Kobayashi. As Taki soon finds out his boss isn’t quite the honorable man he though he was, he is paired up with a dangerous criminal who is in town to facilitate a big drug deal in the hopes Taki wont survive the transaction.
The film definitely is the most Western influenced film on the set and would go on for eight more installments following the larger than life musician on his many adventures. While I really enjoyed this first installment I really wondered how it could actually maintain this level of madness throughout the series, since by the time the credits rolled we knew the secret behind the guitarist and he was then instantly off on a boat to seek another adventure. It’s an odd premise that borders at times on being a bit silly but manages to reign itself in every time it seems about to go too far. While I personally dug The Rambling Guitarist, it’s definitely the weakest link in the set and could be pretty divisive.
As far as extras go the set is a limited run at 3000 copies and transferred from original elements from Nikkatsu Corporation. The transfers, even the ones from release prints, look good with a pleasing contrast. The set comes with original trailers and a video discussion with Japanese cinema expert Jasper Sharp on Diamond Guys Hideaki Nitani and Yujiro Ishihara, which also doubles as a great mini-history on Nikkatsu as well. Given there’s not a lot out there about these films, Jasper does a great job at giving the films, their stars, and directors some great context in the Nikkatsu canon.
Nikkatsu Diamond Guys Vol. 1 is another solid release by Arrow that works as both a crash course in Japanese cinema and to highlight some rarely seen classic films as well. You really get a great sampling from their respective genres by some of the best actors and directors at the time presented as only Arrow could. While I would have liked a bit more in the extras department, the set still is a solid pickup for both fans of Japanese film and those looking to learn more about this great period in film. Nikkatsu Diamond Guys Vol. 1 is a great start to a series, and I can only hope Vol. 2, already available, brings more of the same.