Nikkatsu Diamond Guys Vol. 2 Blu-ray Review (originally published 2016)
Tokyo Mighty Guy (Japanese: Tokyo no abarembô, 1960)
After mastering the art of French cuisine, young Jiro (Akira Kobayashi) returns to Japan and opens a restaurant in the busy streets of Ginza. His dashing looks, iconoclastic culinary skills, and charismatic character attracts not only women, but unwanted trouble. Things get personal when he finds out that a scandalous political figure is trying to take over his girlfriend's business. (From Nikkatsu’s original synopsis)
Nikkatsu Diamond Guys Volume 2 begins with Buichi Saitô’s Tokyo Mighty Guy – a super-buoyant comedy that mixes the fluffy musical appeal of Elvis Presley’s movies (star Akira Koabyashi had already appeared in the sort of Elvis-esque Rambling Guitarist for Nikkatsu in 1959) with typical post-WWII social drama (there is a surprising political slant for such a goofy film) and anime-esque physical comedy (early in the movie, Jiro’s modesty towel falls off in front of a bunch of women and the event literally causes reality to be thrust back several minutes in time). Tsuyoshi Ishigôoka’s screenplay (including a “story by” credit for Takeo Matsuura) is lousy with extraneous subplots and characters that bog down its middle section, but its impossibly light-hearted streak, in which fistfights with knife-wielding gangsters and suicide attempts are played for laughs, is infectious. It’s pretty easy to forgive the crowded story and lack of focus when director Buichi Saitô blends the discordant tones so well. Saitô was a Nikkatsu workhorse and churned out dozens of films over the years, including all eight movies in the Wataridori (Rambler) series (1959 through 1962) and the fourth film in the Lone Wolf and Cub series – Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in Peril (Kozure Ôkami: Oya no kokoro ko no kokoro, 1972) – for Toho. Though Tokyo Mighty Guy isn’t particularly showy, Saitô’s use of wide-angle shots give the entire film the charm of a stage musical.
Tokyo Mighty Guy is an effervescent movie that would make a fun companion piece to other culinary-themed comedies, like Billy Wilder’s Sabrina (1994) and Stephen Chow & Lee Lik-chi’s The God of Cookery (1996), though, apparently, it was the first film in a series. I suppose a marathon might be in order.
This Blu-ray/DVD Combo Pack marks Tokyo Mighty Guy’s first official home video availability in North America. The 2.35:1, 1080p transfer was taken from Nikkatsu’s original film elements and delivered directly to Arrow as digital files. The specs don’t specify if Nikkatsu scanned in 2/4K, but they probably didn’t. The results are slightly rougher than the average Arrow Nikkatsu releases, including bleeding frame edges, scratchy end reels, and a semi-consistent flow of small/easily ignored scratches, white spots, and splicing artifacts. What puts this on the messier side of the Arrow/Nikkatsu canon is the condition of the original materials, which feature chunkier grain and dingier neutral colors (the day-for-night scenes are especially grainy). The scan itself is solid, though, and there aren’t any notable digital artifacts. Complex patterns are still tight and the more vivid hues (the neon of the Ginza streets, for example) are punchy, despite the browning of the overall palette. The original mono sound is presented in LPCM 1.0 mono. Some of the louder vocalizations, effects, and music become fuzzy at high volume levels. Environmental noises are busier than expected and not too tinny. Taichirô Kosugi’s soundtrack blends early rock, jazz, and traditional Japanese hooks, especially the select moments where Kobayashi sings (I can’t find a songwriter credit for the lyrics at this time). As noted, the music is sometimes distorted at its loudest.
Danger Pays (Japanese: Yabai koto nara zeni ni naru, 1962)
Two taxi cab drivers turn up dead. Over one billion yen worth of watermarked paper for bills had been stolen. As most shook their heads in disdain, some men saw this as an opportunity; a chance to get rich quick – including "Joe the Ace" (Joe Shishido). His scheme was to introduce a master counterfeiter and receive a handsome referral fee in return, but the heist team was already a step ahead. Joe's connection had been kidnapped. (From Nikkatsu’s official synopsis)
The collection continues on the comedy kick with its second film, Kô Nakahira’s Danger Pays (aka: Danger Paws, though this is likely just a misspelling of the intended English language title). This time, the director and Nikkatsu house screenwriters Ichirô Ikeda & Tadaaki Yamazaki (with a “story by” credit for Michio Tsuzuki) aren’t so much satirizing crime genre conventions as much as they’re making a straight yakuza thriller with a comedic slant. This uneasy combination of parodic situations, cheesecake burlesque sequences, and guileless, complex criminal plots may prove unsurmountable for neophyte viewers. As a relative newcomer myself, it is both alarming and amusing to see stone-cheeked tough guy Jo Shishido hamming it up in a purple suit. But, those that aren’t alienated by the unpredictable tone (slapstick comedy and graphic violence go hand-in-hand, sometimes in the same sequence) will be rewarded by a visually striking and occasionally quite funny entry in the series. Nakahira worked in many genres for many studios and enjoyed more critical acclaim in his lifetime than the average Nikkatsu exploitation filmmaker. His biggest triumphs included Crazed Fruit (Kurutta kajitsu, 1956 – his feature debut), the Palme d’Or-nominated A Soul to Devil (Yami no naka no chimimoryo, 1971), and a Hong Kongese production for Shaw Brothers Studio called Summer Heat (Mandarin: Kuang lian shi, 1968). It’s easy to see his artistic ambition, even in a lowbrow production such as this one. The lavish sets, costumes, lighting schemes, and compositions have a pseudo-avant-garde quality and the allure of live-action comic books – one that pre-dates the likes of Mario Bava’s Diabolik (aka: Danger: Diabolik, 1968) and Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy (1990).
Danger Pays was also scanned by Nikkatsu and given to Arrow in 1080p. The resulting 2.35:1 transfer is one of the better entries in the Diamond Guys series, thanks to cinematographer Shinsaku Himeda’s dynamic and colorful photography. The base palette is consistently cool and dark, which really makes the red, lavender, and yellow highlights pop (the deep, pure blacks help, too). There are some soft transitions and over-smoothed gradations throughout, but the overall appearance is still sharp, especially close-up details and textures. The complex shapes and layers are neatly separated. The print damage is less consistent than some of the other Nikkatsu releases, though the artifacts tend to be more significant scratches. The LPCM mono sound is a slight upgrade over Tokyo Mighty Guy as well. Vocal effects are more naturalistic and ambient effects are slickly layered, with minimal distortion, even when characters are yelling and guns are going off. Harumi Ibe’s jazzy, big band score is pretty rich, despite having been compressed and flattened into a single channel.
Murder Unincorporated (Japanese: Toba no mesu neko: Sha kiba no shobu, 1965)
In a miserable town corrupted by murder, one of the five Gokou-kai bosses, Sasaki, is gunned down. Beside his lifeless body lays a card; the ace of spades. The man responsible for Sasaki's death was a serial killer who went by the name of "Joe of Spades." The remaining four Gokou-kai executives panicked, for they had already received "greeting cards" from Joe. Each card was numbered from 1 to 5, taunting the four that they are next in line. (From Nikkatsu’s official synopsis)
The final film in this collection, Haryasu Noguchi’s Murder Unincorporated, dives head-first into screwball territory the previous films merely flirted with. Its utter contempt for austerity is apparent within the first few seconds of film, when a professionally-dressed actor looks into the camera lens, points at the audience, and warns “Hey, you. If you don’t laugh when you watch this movie…(smiles) I’m going to execute you,” all to the formidable tones of Beethoven’s Fifth. Writers Kobako Hanato and Akira Saiga cram their screenplay with enough colorful characters (the assassins are all ‘themed,’ including relevant weaponry), absurd situations, wacky slapstick, puns, and wordplay to choke a few laughs out of the most stodgy home viewer. It’s akin to the Mel Brooks or Zucker–Abrahams–Zucker approach to spoof comedy. Logical and intricate plotting is secondary to Looney Tunes-level hijinks and Jerry Lewis-inspired sketches. The sheer quantity of gags does begin to wear out its welcome after about 45 minutes and probably would’ve worked better in 30-minute stints on a TV series.
Noguchi had a pretty brief career as a director. Many of his films – Spy Nakano gakkô - Kokuseki no nai otokotachi (1964), Cat Girl Gamblers (Japanese: Toba no mesu neko, 1965), and Debt Paid in Flesh (Japanese: Toba no mesu neko: Su hada no tsubo furi, 1965) – featured Nikkatsu favourite Tatsuya Fuji, but he was probably best known for his dopey kaiju favourite, Gappa (Japanese: Daikyojû Gappa, 1967). Needless to say, he isn’t often mentioned in the same categories as Yasuharu Hasebe, Teruo Ishii, or Seijun Suzuki.
Once again, this new HD transfer was supplied by Nikkatsu and it is presented in 2.35:1, 1080p. The results are more of what we expect from this series – some wear, artifacts (specifically at the beginning and end of splices), and occasionally thick, but nicely-rendered film grain. All things considered, this might be the best-looking movie in the set, even though it exhibits more significant damage here and there (the splices are especially jagged here). Slightly fuzzy textures don’t mar the strong element separation and background patterns. The color palette leans neutral, aside from those spectacularly vibrant opening titles (see the first screen cap), and black levels are rich. The LPCM mono sound has issues with vocal hiss (especially hard consonants) and the aural balance is a bit off with music and ambient effects disappearing behind dialogue. The whole track is generally fuzzy as well, though not oppressively so. I assume there is a composer credited, but I couldn’t tell, because it wasn’t one of the English translated opening credits. Nikkatsu’s website and imdb.com aren’t any help, either. Whoever wrote it, they should be proud of their infectious jazz themes, even if they’re a bit underutilized.
Introduction to the Diamond Guys – These new video essays with Japanese cinema expert Jasper Sharp are follow-ups to the two already found with the Tokyo Diamond Guy Volume 1 collection. Sharp again discusses the greater history of the series before moving on to the specific careers of two Nikkatsu actors:
Diamond Guy: Jo Shishido (9:20, HD)
Diamond Guy: Akira Kobayashi (11:10, HD)
Trailers for all three films
Image galleries for all three films
Outlaw Gangster VIP series trailers (six total)