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Nikkatsu Diamond Guys: Vol. 1
Nikkatsu's ‘Diamond' line was a showcase for their contract stars, a series of modestly budgeted pictures in which some of their top talent was given the chance to shine in films made for a younger audience. Arrow Video offers up the first of hopefully an ongoing series of Nikkatsu Diamond Guy collections, bringing these pictures to a western audience in their proper aspect ratio and language and in very nice quality.
Voice Without A Shadow:
First up is 1958's Voice Without A Shadow, the film that will likely be of the most interest to western audiences as it was directed by Seijun Suzuki (who is better known on these shorts than the other two filmmakers represented in this set).
In the film, Asako Takahashi (Yoko Minamida) is a switchboard operator for the telephone company. Through an odd twist of fate and a lucky wrong number, she winds up being a witness to a pawn shop robbery that winds up taking a nasty turn. Asako didn't see the killer, but because of that wrong number she was able to listen in when it happened and as the killer had a unique laugh, the authorities hope that she might be able to help them figure out who did it. It doesn't work.
Three years later, a reporter named Ishikawa (Hideaki Nitani) winds up trying to help crack the case. Why? Because Asako's husband has had some associates over for a dinner party and one of those men has that distinct laugh she knows so well. Things take a few twists and turns as Asako becomes haunted by nightmares and is stalked in the real world by the man she believes is the killer. When he husband is assaulted and the man she thinks is the killer turns up dead, the plot thickens indeed.
Suzuki's love of film noir keeps this a sharp and stylish looking film, the high contrast black and white photography enhancing this in its own way. It takes place in a Tokyo that seems overrun with shadows and darkness and the camera captures it all with some interesting angles and plenty of impressive compositions, thanks to the efforts of Kazue Nagatsuka (who also shot Suzuki's Branded To Kill). The pacing is decent and the plot is suspenseful and intriguing. This is complimented nicely by a great performance from pretty Yoko Minamida in the lead and good supporting work from Nitani, whose character also narrates the film. It's also fun to see a young Jo Shishido pop up in the picture as one of Asako's husband's associates. This one might not be as nutty as some of Suzuki's better known and more influential pictures but it's a very fine piece of suspenseful noir style entertainment.
Also made in 1959, Red Pier was made with Toshio Masuda handling directorial duties. The story is set in Kobe and it follows a young man named Jiro (Yujiro Ishihara), a small time criminal who has just arrived in town. As he gets acclimated to his new digs and tries to put his checkered past behind him, he falls head over heels in love with a beautiful college student named Keiko (Mie Kitahara) who he happens to meet. It won't all be a life of wine and roses for Jiro, however, because he winds up on the wrong side of some gangsters running a racket out of the local piers.
When Jiro winds up witnessing a murder, not only is his life in danger from the criminals surrounding him, but the law, specifically a detective named Noro, decide they'd like to start poking around his business too… and of course, there's more to Keiko's story here than meets the eye as well.
Story wise, this one starts off with a solid murder set piece before settling comfortably into romantic drama territory for a while. This stretch of the film isn't the most exciting, but it does at least look great. We get plenty of scenes set inside some seedy but intriguing looking nightclubs (these scenes are a little reminiscent of some of the scenes that Jess Franco would shoot in the years to come, though far less ‘sexy') and the pier itself makes for an interesting location. Again, there's a lot of interesting camerawork here, great us of shadows and plenty of style. The film has a nice jazzy soundtrack that works well and the last third of the film does at least ramp up the tension and suspense, even if it's not so much of a challenge to figure out where all of this is heading. Yujiro Ishihara makes for a fine leading man here, Masuda does a good job of perpetually reminding us of how cool he is, and it's interesting to see him reunited with Mie Kitahara who also starred with him in Ko Nakahira's Crazed Fruit to years prior.
The Rambling Guitarist:
Last but not least is Takeichi Saitô's 1959 picture, The Rambling Guitarist. The storyline for the only color film in the set follows Shinji (Akira Kobayashi), a young man who tries to make a living for himself as a street musician. Soon after we meet him, he helps out in a fight with a man at a bar and winds up meeting with his mobster boss, Akitsu (Nobuo Kaneko). Impressed with Shinji's moxie, Akitsu offers him work. His first job is to head to an old fishery and evict the guys working there but things get complicated when Shinji finds out that it's actually own by the man who Akitu's sister is married to.
As the story moves on, Shinji gets closer to the Akitsu family, particularly to his pretty daughter, Yuki (Ruriko Asaoka), who clearly has eyes for the handsome young guitar slinger. When Shinji is accused by a rival mobster of being a plant for the police, however, things quickly get dangerous for him.
This one is a lot of fun. Clearly influenced by American juvenile delinquent films and maybe a few Elvis movies, The Rambling Guitarist is quick in its pacing and very impressive in how colorful and quirky looking it is. Akira Kobayashi makes for a fine leading man here. He's the leather clad cool guy that all the ladies want to be with, a rocknroller with a good heart who happens to get mixed up with some bad people. Kobayashi plays the part well, he's got enough charisma to make it work, while Nobuo Kaneko does a fine job as the mobster in charge. Ruriko Asaoka is cute as the main love interest and hey, check it out, Jo Shishido pops up in this one too, this time playing a hitman.
The camerawork is, once again, very impressive here. The seaside town where all of this takes place is picturesque but at the same time, we know there's a seedy element at play here. This one packs in enough action, intrigue, adventure and, yes, even romance that it's nothing if not a crowd pleaser.
The first two films in the set are black and white, the third in color, each one presented in AVC encoded 1080p high definition with the black and white films framed at 2.35.1 and the color at 2.40.1. Each transfer is really strong, the black and white pictures showing great contrast and nice, deep black levels. There are some splice marks noticeable on some of the edits in the black and white films, but it's probably a pretty safe bet that there wasn't much that could be done about these.The color film boasts nice color reproduction and all three films show nice detail and a considerable amount of depth (though some scenes do tend to look softer than others). There are no problems with any obvious noise reduction here, so expect a natural amount of unobtrusive film grain, but there isn't much in the way of serious print damage, just occasional specks now and then and the odd scratch that pops up. Compression artifacts are never a problem, there is no evidence of edge enhancement and all in all, things shape up very nicely here, the movies all look very good in high definition. All three films are included on the same disc, but it's a 50GB platter so there aren't any issues here.
The only audio track for this set is an Japanese language DTS-HD 2.0 Mono option with removable subtitles available in English only. While range is understandably limited by the source material, the tracks here sound just fine. There are no problems with any hiss or distortion and the levels are properly balanced. There's a reasonable amount of depth present in each mix and the subtitles are clean, clear and easy to read.
The main extras for this release are a collection of newly recorded discussions with Jasper Sharp on the history and significance of the movies and the people who made them. Diamond Guys Hideaki Nitani runs just over ten minutes and Diamond Guy Yujiro Ishihara just over fifteen. Here Sharp gives us some welcome background information on the subjects, detailing their exploits at Nikkatsu and talking up the films represented in the set. Interesting stuff.
Outside of that we get trailers for all three films and bonus trailers for Diamond Guys Volume 2 films: Tokyo Mighty Guy, Danger Paws and Murder Unincorporated. There are also still galleries, menus and chapter selection provided. Inside the keepcase along with the Blu-ray and DVD discs (this is a combo pack release) is a booklet of liner notes from Stuart Galbraith, Tom Mes and Mark Schilling that detail the history of each of the three films in the collection.
Nikkastu Diamond Guys Volume One is a lot of fun. Those into Japanese crime films of this vintage really ought to get a kick out of this one, as each movie offers plenty of tension, thrills and excitement to go along with some colorful characters and slick visuals. Arrow's set offers each movie in solid quality and with a few fun extras as well. Highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.