VOICE WITHOUT A SHADOW
B&W, 1958, 91m.
Directed by Seijun Suzuki
Starring Hideaki Nitani, Yôko Minamida, Jô Shishido, Nobuo Kaneko
B&W, 1958, 99m.
Directed by Toshio Masuda
Starring Yûjirô Ishihara, Mie Kitahara, Masumi Okada, Sanae Nakahara
THE RAMBLING GUITARIST
B&W, 1959, 77m.
Directed by Buichi Saito
Starring Akira Kobayashi,
Ruriko Asaoka, Sanae Nakahara, Jô Shishido
Arrow (Blu-ray & DVD) (US/UK RA/RB HD) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9)
In case you were wondering, the "Diamond Guys" in the title of this three-film set from Arrow Films are young Japanese actors intended to keep the Nikkatsu studio popular with younger audiences. While American studios and indies were courting adolescent drive-in patrons with beach movies and juvenile delinquents on the loose, Nikkatsu took a similar route looking for heartthrob who might become their own equivalent to Elvis or James Dean. However, the end results are sometimes very different from what Western viewers encountered at the time, as this excellent collection clearly proves.
In Voice without a Shadow, a brutal pawnshop robbery and murder turns out to have an unlikely witness in the form of switchboard operator Asako Takahashi (House's Minamida), whose connection to a wrong number allows her to overhear the laughing killer in action. Brought in as an "earwitness," she can't identify the culprit and the case goes unsolved for three years. Reporter and humble narrator Ishikawa (Tokyo Drifter's Nitani) is pulled into the cold case when Asako recognizes the same voice when her husband invites over three clients for a mahjong game night including a young Jô Shishido as the rowdy gambling addict of the bunch, Hamazaki, an advertising company president whom she recognizes as the murderer from years before. Terrified and plagued by nightmares, she finds herself stalked by the intimidating Hamazaki and urges her husband to cut ties with him... only for things to take a violent turn when her husband crawls home battered and bloodied. The next day, Hamazaki's body is found with mysterious traces of coal in his lungs, kicking off a dangerous dive into the criminal underworld.
Japanese efforts to incorporate the style of Hollywood film noir into its crime films often resulted in fascinating, wildly stylized thrillers (perhaps reaching its most famous zenith in 1963 with Akira Kurosawa's High and Low), and this one's no exception as cult director Seijun Suzuki (who would later get kicked out of Nikkatsu for his excessive style) tosses in plenty of shadowy lairs, surreal flourishes (love those broken mirrors during the climax), and unsavory characters. You could easily believe this was adapted from a Cornell Woolrich pulp novel, and the contrast between the middle class and the lower working stiffs stuck in tight hovels creates a memorable backdrop for a pretty solid murder mystery. It's an unusual choice to kick off the set since it's more of a woman in peril film than a vehicle for clean-cut Nitani, who does well enough as our intrepid reporter but definitely pales next to the more colorful criminal elements around him.
Making its home video English-subtitled debut, this one looks very nice overall with rich, solid black levels and very little element damage. The one drawback is distracting splice marks visible at the top and bottom of the frame at every cut, so slightly tighter matting might have been a wiser option.
Next up is Red Pier, a moody, jazzy crime musical about the upheaval in Kobe when notorious criminal"Lefty" Jiro (Crazed Fruit's Ishihara) rolls into town. Doomed from birth thanks to reform school and gang life, he falls for a local college girl but finds his life in danger due to the local racketeers, who are first seen offing a dock worker with a crane in the pre-credits sequence. The shipping business at the local port and regular demand for high-stakes card games offer plenty of opportunities for all kinds of shadiness, so nasty in fact that Lefty looks like a hero. (It doesn't hurt that he's first seen saving a little kid from getting flattened by a cab driver,either.)
The gap-toothed Ishihara is one of the more unlikely Nikkatsu leading men, but he's quite good here as director Toshio Masuda (who went on to do Gangster VIP and some of the Japanese scenes for Tora! Tora! Tora!) ladles on the smoky nightclub scenes, trampy women, and stylish cars and clothes, elevating a very routine plot into a solid (albeit overlong) bit of pulp entertainment. The transfer here is essentially the same as the prior film, with the monochrome photography rendered nicely with good contrast and detail, plagued only by those aforementioned persistent splices (which presumably couldn't be cropped out without damaging the compositions).
Finally we hit the sole color outing in the set, The Wandering Guitarist,which also continues the crime/musical combo but in a much lighter mode. Drawing its color palette from MGM musicals, our story returns to the seaside for the criminal misadventures of our titular guitarist, leather-clad Shinji (Kobayashi), whose stop at a nightclub takes a pivotal turn when he gets involved in a brawl and saves some of the lackeys of local mob kingpin Akitsu (Kaneko). Romantic sparks start to fly when his boss's piano-playing daughter takes a shine to him and a wicked moll shows some interest as well, but when his new job as an enforcer/negotiator threatens to cause a permanent rift in the town's criminal underworld, a rival boss wonders if our nomadic hero might have a secret he's keeping from everyone.
Short, sweet, and very colorful, this is a fun little diversion of a movie that nicely points the way forward to the splashy, stylized films Nikkatsu would turn out in the '60s. Fist fights, romance, gunfire, and tons of amazing scenery make this one a sensory treat, and the story offers a pretty blatant variation on the Elvis Presley classic King Creole to serve as a vehicle for the guitar-strumming Kobayashi, and there's even a colorful supporting turn by Shishido again, this time with a big scar across his cheek. There's also a tiny dash of kink (foreshadowing the direction Nikkatsu would take years later) with a scene involving a chair, some rope, and a riding crop, but overall it's a fairly smooth, sunny piece of work that leaves you anxious for volume two.
The three films alone should justify picking up this release (which also comes with liner notes and filmmaker bios by Stuart Galbraith, Tom Mes and Mark Schilling), but you get a bit of extra material as well for context. Jasper Sharp, a name familiar from many past Nikkatsu releases including the Impulse softcore releases, offers some welcome history behind the films in two featurettes looking at Ishihara (15 mins.) and Nitani (10 mins.), while still galleries and trailers are included for all three films along with bonus trailers for forthcoming volume two titles: Saito's Tokyo Mighty Guy, Ko Nakahira's Danger Paws, and the utterly insane Murder Unincorporated.
Reviewed on January 16, 2016.