Nikkatsu Diamond Guys Vol 1 Blu-ray Review (originally published 2016)
Voice without a Shadow (1958)
Asako (Yôko Minamida), a former telephone operator once heard the voice of a murder suspect, which has continued to haunt her. Years later, her husband invites his boss, Hamazaki (Hideaki Nitani), over for dinner and she realizes his voice is suspiciously like that of the killer. Before she can investigate further, Hamazaki is found dead and her husband becomes the prime suspect. (From Arrow’s official synopsis)
Voice without a Shadow is directed by Seijun Suzuki, who very well may be the most well-known Japanese filmmaker that didn’t make a name for himself with samurai (chambara) fiction. Suzuki stuck mostly to noir-themed yakuza and juvenile delinquent movies throughout the the ‘50s and ‘60s, developing a reputation with the rough ‘n tumble gangster epics Youth of the Beast (Japanese: Yajū no seishun; aka: Wild Youth, 1963) and hooker girl gang classic Gate of Flesh (Japanese: Nikutai no mon, 1964), but really came to worldwide attention with two more experimental and satirical crime flicks – Tokyo Drifter (Japanese: Tōkyō nagaremono, 1966) and Branded to Kill (Japanese: Koroshi no rakuin, 1967).
Though Voice without a Shadow predates Suzuki’s more ‘definitive’ pictures, it’s a nice indication of the kind of subversive craftsmanship that would characterize his later career. The black & white widescreen frame is constantly buzzing with activity creating a dynamic atmosphere, even during the moments that cinematographer Kazue Nagatsuka’s camera holds in a fixed location. Though the pacing is a bit sluggish compared to the crackle and pop of Tokyo Drifter, Suzuki’s penchant for haunting and quirky visuals push the film through its saggy middle section. His future in surrealism also briefly rears its head in the form of a logic-twisting nightmare sequence and scenes of low-level criminals enacting insane schemes. The screenplay – credited to Ryuta Akimoto, Seichô Matsumoto, and Susumu Saji – offers an original slant on familiar gangster tropes by coupling it with the type of Hitchcockian murder plot that puts the audience in the shoes of an amateur sleuth who reluctantly tries to solve the mystery. Like Rear Window or Shadow of a Doubt, Voice without a Shadow is as much about perception and point-of-view as it is about plot twists and the police work (I admit that I completely lost track of the narrative about half-way through). What makes it unique, however, outside of its Tokyo locations, is the fact that the protagonist is a woman who is hampered by gender roles. Yôko Minamida does a fantastic job portraying Asako as frightened without being hopeless (the movie suffers as it moves away from her side of the story) and famous Nikkatsu heavy Hideaki Nitani is incredibly menacing as the villain that sets off the plot.
Voice without a Shadow was never released on DVD, at least not that I can find, so this Blu-ray debut is a pretty big deal for Suzuki’s fans. All three films in this set have been remastered from original film elements by Nikkatsu and supplied to Arrow, who put all three of these relatively short features onto a single BD50. The 2.35:1, 1080p black & white image shows minor signs of wear, such as white flecks and tiny scratches, as well a load of awkward transitions between edits (splice marks, white flashes at the top and bottom of the frame, et cetera), but is generally as clean and natural as previous Arrow/Nikkatsu collaborations. The busy frames and deep-set focus leads to oodles of information, complex textures, and overlapping shapes. Blacks are deep and gradations are pretty subtle, despite the general darkness of the photography. The original mono sound is presented in uncompressed LPCM 1.0 and basically matches the standard set by the video quality. There’s not much in the way of dynamic sound, but there is a pretty constant stream of location noise alongside scenes of characters eavesdropping on each other through thin walls, so clarity is key. Effects tend to have a slight tinny quality (on purpose in the case of the crackling mahjong tiles, voices, and ringing phones that ‘haunt’ the heroine), while dialogue is a smidge muffled – both expected side effects of a mono track from the ‘50s. Hikaru Hayashi’s musical score is soft, but rarely overwhelmed by performance or effects.
Red Pier (1958)
Shortly after arriving in Kobe, “Jiro the Lefty” (Yujiro Ishihara) – a killer with a natural talent – witnesses a man die in a crane accident. That ‘accident’ turns out to be a cover-up for a murder. Jiro soon finds himself on the run, tailed by a determined cop. (From Arrow’s official synopsis)
The second Diamond Guys flick, Red Pier (Japanese: Akai hatoba; aka: Red Quay, 1958), was directed and co-written (with Ichiro Ikeda) by Toshio Masuda. From its super-hip, sharply-dressed, dark sunglasses-clad antiheroes to its contemplative shots of Japanese cityscapes, jazzy music, love triangles, and route storyline, it is a more typical example of the Nikkatsu crime/J.D. flicks of the late ‘50s/early ‘60s era. That isn’t to say it’s a disappointment, however, especially not when it’s coupled with Voice without a Shadow for contrast – though viewers not already versed in the visual and tonal languages of the subgenre may actually want to watch Masuda’s movie first. This will help them to understand the appeal of the canon’s cliches while also appreciating Suzuki’s subversions of the tropes. While the screenplay leaves a lot to be desired in the plot department, the cool characters, barely repressed sex appeal, easy-going narrative, and Shinsaku Himeda’s super-evocative photography (the ocean-side quick-draw shot is amazing) make for an energetic and entertaining experience. The melancholic finale packs a wallop, too.
Red Pier was Masuda’s debut and reflected a number of other crime flicks he made for Nikkatsu early in his career, including Rusty Knife (Japanese: Sabita naifu), which was released the same year. His filmography is usually more defined by his ‘70s science fiction movies, though, including his notoriously violent disaster flick, Catastrophe 1999: Prophecies of Nostradamus (Japanese: Nosutoradamusu no daiyogen, 1974), and two movies based on the Space Battleship Yamato anime series (Farewell to Space Battleship Yamato, Japanese: Saraba Uchū Senkan Yamato Ai no Senshitachi, 1978; Be Forever Yamato, Yamato yo Towa ni, 1980).
Red Pier also appears to be making its digital debut in the form of another 2.35:1, 1080p black & white image. This transfer is less consistent transfer than Voice without a Shadow and the discrepancies seem to be a mix of source photography and print condition issues. The horizontal splice mark problems are somewhat mitigated, while physical damage, especially scratches, is a bigger problem during some sequences. These problem areas appear to be contained at the beginning and end of reels, which leaves the bulk of the film’s appearance relatively clean with natural grain levels. The other issue is contrast and this is the ‘fault’ of the photography. With a low budget and short shooting schedule, Masuda and Himeda were at the mercy of the elements during outdoor daylight sequences and this leaves some of them washy, depleting fine texture, blowing-out subtle gradations, and causing white levels to bloom. The interior sequences (and some outdoor night shots), where they had more control over lighting, are much more dynamic, including rich blacks, subtle gradations, and sharper edges. The LPCM 1.0 mono sound doesn’t include any of Voice without a Shadow’s more stylized moments, but there is quite a bit of action, so gunshots, fireworks, and speeding cars offer a bit of aural texture to the otherwise dialogue-driven film. Volume and clarity is consistent, though flatter than Voice without a Shadow. There is no credited composer, but quite a bit of music, so I assumed that Masuda utilized music from Nikkatsu’s catalogue – except that Yujiro Ishihara, who was a pop star, literally breaks into song at one point, while being accompanied by the orchestra.
The Rambling Guitarist (1959)
A wandering street musician named Shinji (Akira Koabyashi), who falls in with mob boss Akitsu after saving one of his henchmen in a bar fight. Tasked by Akitsu with evicting an offshore fishery, Shinji finds himself in the middle of a very unusual domestic dispute. (From Arrow’s official synopsis)
The final film in the collection, The Rambling Guitarist (Japanese: Guitar o motta wataridori), is a Japanese New Wave-flavoured pseudo-remake of George Stevens’ Shane (1953). It was made by director Takeichi Saitô and represents a largely forgotten era of counter-culture Japanese westerns that predated the more famous Italian-made spaghetti westerns (which were, themselves, derivative of Akira Kurosawa’s revisionist samurai movies). It seems very possible that Sergio Leone (and/or screenwriters Bernardo Bertolucci, Dario Argento, and Sergio Donati) took some inspiration from Shinji, who whistles his own theme song, when creating Harmonica for Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). I suppose the fact that screenwriter Gan Yamazaki set the film on the post-WWII backstreets of Tokyo may have thrown some folks off the scent, but it is hard to miss the definitive story flavors of an American western, especially as they apply to Shane (there’s even a couple of physics-defying quick draw shootouts). At the same time, most of the crime/J.D. standbys are present, including glowering gangsters, scenes of cool guys playing pool (snooker?), tough guys that develop relationships with children, and dramatic backroom meetings. Passing fans of both genres may be a bit put-off by the mugging comedic performances of the supporting cast, but I think it works, given the theatricality that the era demanded. There’s a loose quality to Saitô’s direction that fits the free-wheeling material. Instead of tossing the audience into the action with darting handheld cameras, he and cinematographer Kuratarô Takamura tend to lop the shot off and allow the audience to be an objective bystander to the flailing, awkward fistfights and dialogue-heavy sequences. In contrast, the musical interludes feature dynamic, gliding cameras and offer genuine solace from the almost documentarian approach.
The Rambling Guitarist was the first film in Nikkatsu’s Wataridori (Rambler) series, followed by The Rambler Rides Again (1960), The Guitarist And The Rancher (1960), The Rambler In The Sunset (1960), Return Of The Vagabond (1960), The Rambler Under The Southern Cross (1961), Rambling In The Sea (1961), and The Rambler Goes North (1962) – all directed by Saitô.
It seems that the Wataridori series did appear on DVD in Japan, but those releases did not have English subtitle options. Arrow’s 2.35:1, 1080p transfer is the only full-color image in the collection. Saitô and Takamura are at the mercy of the elements and what appears to be substandard stock, so the colors are a bit washed-out and grey, but there’s also consistency between hues, even when the image pulses. Print damage is uneven and unpredictable. The majority of scenes are close to as clean as we can expect from the material, but there are some substantial white blobs speckled here and there (the splice issue is mitigated to a simple wobble between some shots). Music is clearly an important role in a movie called The Rambling Guitarist (it’s not only Shinji’s guitar playing, either – high society piano concerts and jazz club dances also make appearances) and composer Taichirô Kosugi (who is the only credited songwriter) doesn’t disappoint with this mix of western, jazz, and symphonic motifs. This LPCM 1.0 mono track is the most consistently loud in the set and, as such, suffers from the most high-end buzz and distortion. The sound designers were very consciously creating a layered and busy aural environment, which creates minor soundfloor issues as well. Dialogue is a bit muffled, but generally clear and effects are crisp, despite the tinny qualities. Most importantly, the music sounds nice throughout with only a few examples of high volume crackling (the opening titles, in particular).
Introduction to the Diamond Guys – New video essays with Japanese cinema expert Jasper Sharp, who runs down the greater history before moving on to the specific careers of two Nikkatsu actors: Diamond Guy: Yujiro Ishihara (15:20, HD) and Diamond Guy: Hideaki Nitani (10:20, HD).
Trailers for all three films and a preview of Arrow’s second Diamond Guys collection.