“Diamond Guys” is the name given to the top line of A-list stars at Japan’s oldest film studio Nikkatsu, during their period of relaunching themselves as a major production house during the 1950s. At this time Japanese studios, like their Hollywood counterparts, worked largely on a star system where they held a number of actors and actresses under contract and slotted them into their productions as and where they saw fit. Of the three stars in these pictures, Yujiro Ishihara perhaps burned brightest as a James Dean style apathetic hero and icon of the “sun tribe” era. Hideaki Nitani ultimately carved a niche for himself as a second lead rather than in starring roles and is a little more on the soulful side than the other guys. Akira Kobayashi, who’s still fairly young here, is probably the most familiar to overseas audiences, later starring in a number of gangster pictures including Arrow’s previous releases Retaliation and the Battles Against Honour and Humanity series.
The first film included in this set, Voice Without a Shadow, is a notable inclusion as it’s a little seen early effort from the notorious master of the surreal, Seijun Suzuki. In a significantly restrained mood here, Suzuki adapts a Seicho Matsumoto short story with noir overtones as a telephone switchboard operator accidentally connects a wrong number and unwittingly hears the voice of a murderer at a crime scene. Hideaki Nitani plays a conflicted reporter who’s fallen in love with the switchboard operator who is, alas, already engaged. Three years later she hears the voice again in a gangster her husband unwisely becomes involved with, only to have him killed and her husband become the prime suspect.
Film number two, Red Pier, comes from Toshio Masuda and stars pinup of the day Yujiro Ishihara in a characteristically cheeky, nihilistic gangster role. Dressed in a bright white suit and sunglasses, “Jiro the Lefty” is a petty yakuza street kid who found a home in a gang but dreams of a better life somewhere else. After witnessing the strange death of a potential target who gets crushed by a crane at the docks, Jiro ends up meeting the man’s sister and, of course, falls for her. Unfortunately, just about everyone now has it in for Jiro and his happily ever after seems very far off indeed.
The Rambling Guitarist, by contrast, is the only film in the collection to be filmed in colour but makes fantastic use of its super bright, psychedelic look. Starring Akira Kobayashi as a drifter with a guitar, the film starts out like a western but ends as a yakuza pic with a little youth drama thrown in for good measure. It’s fighting, music and gunplay, with Jo Shishido lending grinning support as a late addition hitman.
In some senses each of these films was built around its star - men want to be them, women want to be with them, you get the picture. The Rambling Guitarist is the odd one out here as it’s of a slightly different strand than the other two with a lighter emphasis on crime and a shift from noir to western in terms of its overseas influences. Both Voice Without a Shadow and Red Pier lean much more towards film noir, with Red Pier leaning a little more towards Europe than America. That said, The Rambling Guitarist is perhaps the weakest film on offer simply because of its up to the moment youth orientation, which leaves it feeling a little more dated than the other two films which can rely on their more classical style to find a modern appeal.
Each of these little seen gems would have been worthy of a solo buy in any case, but finding them all offered in this fantastic new package from Arrow is a real treat. Each offered in stunning HD re-masters on Blu-ray, even if they show their age in a couple of places the transfers are particularly fine and are likely to be the best these films will ever look. The Nikkatsu films from this era offered crowd-pleasing thrills and good-looking actors, but they were often also made by interesting directors who injected a little of their own individual, often youthful, flair to lift them well above the generic genre offerings also on offer. That isn’t to say that each of their pictures was a smash hit, but the three on offer as part of this set are certainly each worthy of consideration even if for quite different reasons. If the included trailers for volume two are anything to go by we have even more undiscovered gems to look forward to in the future!