Arrow Heads Vol. 24: NIKKATSU DIAMOND GUYS Vol. 2 – Japanese Tough-Guy Comedies

 

Arrow Heads
Arrow Video, a subsidiary of Arrow Films, humbly describe themselves as merely a “Distributor of classic, world, cult and horror cinema on DVD & Blu-ray”. But we film geeks know them as the Britain-based bastion of the brutal and bizarre, boasting gorgeous Blu-ray releases with high quality artwork and packaging and bursting with extras (often their own productions). Their collector-friendly releases had traditionally not been available in the U.S, but now Arrow has come across the pond and this column is devoted to discussing their weird and wonderful output.

The second volume of Arrow Films’ Nikkatsu Diamond Guys collects a trio of Japanese 60s films starring either Akira Kobayashi or Jo Shishido, two of the studio’s leading men. Dan Tabor recently covered Volume 1 of the series, while Volume 2 serves up some lighter fare with three gangster-themed comedies.

Tokyo Mighty Guy (1960)

As it turned out, the disc’s first film was hands-down my favorite of the bunch. Akira Kobayashi stars in this immensely entertaining romp directed by Buichi Saito, known for the Rambler series as well as one of the Lone Wolf And Cub sequels.

Tokyo Mighty Guy’s charms revolve almost entirely around its hero, Jiro. Simple as it may sound, Jiro is just so darn cool. He looked like Chow Yun Fat before Chow Yun Fat looked like Chow Yun Fat. He’s the hippest, smartest, and bravest guy around, and that’s okay because he’s kind, too (except to the girl who is obviously in love with him, poor thing). Jiro’s back in Ginza after getting a university education in Paris, and even though he’s capable of doing just about anything professionally, he decides to try his hand as a restaurateur because, hey, he loves food.

Jiro quickly makes enemies by standing up to anyone who deserves to be taken down a notch, whether it’s local gang members hassling him for protection money or one of the country’s most powerful and self-absorbed politicians. The film’s most memorable scene is a roving fistfight on the beach, in which Jiro takes on an entire street gang with a surprising result. Jiro consistently manages to turn his enemies into friends, and it’s so much fun seeing how these characters, like the audience, are won over by his wit and charm.

Similarly, Jiro’s friends can’t help but get him involved in their personal problems, and his affable and unflappable navigation of social mores is endlessly fun. Not to mention there are even a few disarmingly playful song and dance numbers. I was completely enamored with this one.

Danger Pays (1962)

When a world class money counterfeiter returns to Japan, several criminal factions compete to kidnap him and put him to work for them. Led by Jo Shishido in a snazzy purple suit, this ensemble comedy features a large cast of unsavory characters who are essentially killing each other over fake money. I’m sure there’s an ironic lesson in that.

Even though this is about a bunch of criminals and gangsters in contention, the tone is light and there are several likeable characters who end up in a loose alliance and emerge as the protagonists. There are some great comedic gags here, including a couple which predate more famously known appearances elsewhere, such as a group of bad guys having a round of loud, forced laughter (Austin Powers) and Jo Shishido driving around in a comically small car (Mr. Bean).

The film’s climax includes an unexpectedly violent shootout which surprised me, given the film’s comedic tone – perhaps as a spoof of more hard-boiled Yakuza pictures, before capping off with a comedic surprise ending.

While not particularly memorable, Danger Pays has enjoyable characters and performances, and is pleasantly amusing without going over the top with its silliness.

As a weird aside, a rather obvious historical transcription error has apparently cursed this film with the commonly-attributed misnomer “Danger Paws”, even in official references. This alternate title is, of course, nonsense. As the film’s opening theme song literally shouts, “Danger’s where the money is!”

Murder Unincorporated (1965)

The final film on the set is by far the silliest, and turned out to be my least favorite as well. Murder, Unincorporated takes its anarchic comedy to cartoonish heights, but ultimately feels kind of exhausting.

When some top-level gangsters start getting killed, it looks like assassin Joe “Ace Of Spades” is responsible. As a counter-offensive, they hire a bunch of assassins of their own to kill him first.

The assassins are a nutty roundup of gimmick characters with their own trademark themes, weapons, and methods, hired in a series of auditions not unlike the super-team tryouts in Mystery Men. These killers include a baseball fanatic whose bat is a gun in disguise, a poet who similarly shoots bullets from his book, and a young boy who claims to be the grandson of Al Capone, among others, to give an idea of the kind of silliness we’re dealing with here.

The most prominently featured character among this league of assassins is Konmatsu, a diminutive, nerdy man who fancies himself a fierce killer despite being completely unskilled. He unwittingly befriends his own target, the killer Joe (Jo Shishido), who plays along with his delusions and sportingly pretends to be in awe of the idiot’s killing prowess, even agreeing to become Konmatsu’s apprentice.

Unfortunately, despite the film’s comedic intentions, it all falls pretty flat. Even though it’s actually a pretty short movie, it couldn’t keep my attention. The anarchic style isn’t as funny as it wants to be, and the silly characters are frequently annoying and rarely endearing.

The Package

The second volume of Arrow’s Nikkatsu Diamond Guys series highlighting lesser known Japanese genre films is now available in a dual-format Blu-ray and DVD Limited Edition of 3000. The release features reversible sleeve artwork and a booklet featuring essays about the films. (Please note this review was conducted using a media-only screener so I can’t comment on the physical aspects of the packaging or booklet).

All three films are housed on the same Blu-ray disc, but this doesn’t seem to have diminished their quality – these are nice looking transfers from Nikkatsu film elements with uncompressed audio.

Special Features and Extras

Introduction to the Diamond Guys (20:19)
Genre expert Jasper Sharp sits down with Arrow to discuss the stars and their careers.

Diamond Guy Jo Shishido (9:13)
Diamond Guy Akira Kobayashi (11:05)

Original Japanese Trailers
Trailers for all three films.
Tokyo Mighty Guy (3:45)
Danger Pays (3:49)
Murder Unincorporated (4:09)

Outlaw Gangster VIP Trailer Reel (17:20)
As a nice bonus, the disc also includes trailers for the entire Outlaw Gangster VIP series, also available from Arrow Video.
Outlaw Gangster VIP (3:07)
Outlaw Gangster VIP 2 (2:59)
Outlaw 3: Heartless (2:33)
Outlaw 4: Goro The Assassin (2:57)
Outlaw 5: Black Dagger (2:57)
Outlaw 6: Kill! (3:13)

Verdict: It’s definitely awesome to have the opportunity to see these titles, obscure and virtually unknown in the US until now. This set is a bit mixed with one film I absolutely loved, one I generally liked, and one I didn’t like at all, but 2 out of 3 ain’t bad. All things considered, my overall feeling on the set is certainly positive. I love to watch Japanese films of this era, and this set’s worthwhile for the excellent Tokyo Mighty Guy alone.

Get it at Amazon:
Nikkatsu Diamond Guys Vol. 2[Blu-ray]
Nikkatsu Diamond Guys Vol. 1[Blu-ray]

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the author

Austin Vashaw is a technology and new media professional in Overland Park, KS (a Kansas City 'burb). Film yakker, wisecracker, tact lacker, and BK Stacker snacker; lover of photography, Victorian literature, and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. @VforVashaw | letterboxd.com/VforVashaw