Nikkatsu Diamond Guys Vol. 1 (Arrow Video, NR)

The opportunity to see some of the best of what mainstream Japanese cinema had to offer in the 50s is motivation enough to check out this set.

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Nikkatsu is the oldest film studio in Japan, and one of the five most prominent as well. Around 1956, they found their niche in “youth pictures,” and cultivated a lineup of actors that would solidify their fame amongst Japanese audiences. The “Diamond Guys” were the attractive, young stars of these movies, the majority of which contained action and crime. The films collected in this volume of Nikkatsu Diamond Guys from Arrow Video individually showcase three major players from Nikkastu’s Diamond lineup of film idols: Hideaki Nitani, Yujiro Ishihara, and Akira Kobayashi. All are worth watching. The opportunity to see some of the best of what mainstream Japanese cinema had to offer in the 50s is motivation enough to check out this set, not to mention the fact that the each film is unique and compelling on its own terms.

Each of the films has varying elements of film noir, and Voice without a Shadow has the most. The narrative, while not slavishly faithful to noir conventions, would fit in nicely among most American crime movies from the 50s. It’s also the only film in the set that doesn’t feature its “Diamond Guy” as the lead. Rather, Hideaki Nitani plays a significant supporting role as a journalist who tries to help a woman named Asako (Yôko Minamida) prove her husband didn’t kill his boss. To complicate things more, Asako recognizes the voice of the boss as that of a murderer she heard over the phone when she used to be a line operator. The question of her husband’s innocence and who was involved in the murder she heard over the phone keeps the story rolling with incredible intensity. The claustrophobic and paranoid feeling that is a staple of film noir is not only expressed through the common low-key lighting and restrictive framing but from menacingly brilliant use of sound editing as well.

The Rambling Guitarist deviates the most from the crime genre and film noir elements, being more reminiscent of John Ford Westerns than anything else. The urban locales and backhanded crime deals are still present, but they stand in place for saloons and stagecoach chases. The atmosphere of the lawless west prevails. Akira Kobayashi is the eponymous guitarist with a mysterious past, Shinji. He arrives in town and quickly strikes up a relationship with a crime boss, who makes him a sort of errand boy. Things go awry when his true identity begins to come to light, and he finds himself in the middle of several rivalries and disputes amongst the gangsters, their clients, and their family members. In addition to being the only film in color, there’s a sense of whimsy and playfulness that makes The Rambling Guitarist stand out from the other films on the set. As a guitarist and performer of sorts, Shinji sings often and in a folk-western manner. He’s noble and of few words, like the archetypal western hero, but maintaining a sense of modernity and coolness typical of gangster antiheroes.

I left the second film for last since it’s my favorite, as well as the most cohesive and distinctive of the three. Red Pier (directed by Toshio Masuda) stars Diamond Guy Yujiro Ishihara as Jiro the Lefty, a hitman for the Yakuza. He falls in love with the woman whose purity comes into conflict with his inability to abandon the criminal lifestyle. To complicate things, he’s being hounded by a humble but tenacious detective, and there seems to be a hit out on him, as well. A crime film through and through, it balances noir with French gangster films of the 30s, purportedly being a reimagining of Pépé le Moko. The cool, jazzy atmosphere evokes the setting of Jean-Pierre Mehlville’s Le Samourai, although Ishihara’s Jiro is distinguished as his own character, being both sly and seductive but also boyish and exuberant. For the most part, the cinematography, editing, and use of music adheres to the noir tradition, but director Toshio Masuda’s voice interjects enough to result in a good amount of really original characters and scenes.

The set comes in dual format, with all three films and special features appearing on one Blu-ray, and then split between two DVDs. A photo gallery and some trailers are nice touches, but the best special feature is the introduction to actors Yujiro Ishihara and Hideaki Nitani by film critic Jasper Sharp, who provides a concise and substantial background to the actors, their films, and the history of Nikkatsu. | Nic Champion

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