Scott Reviews Arrow Video’s Nikkatsu Diamond Guys: Vol. 2 [Blu-ray Review]

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In my review of the first “Diamond Guys” collection Arrow put out, I noted how, for all the ways those films tried to shake up the Nikkatsu formula, it was still a fairly representative look at what the studio was all about – widescreen, black-and-white, stoic men drawn into violent situations, corruptible women, and jazzy scores. Only the final film in that set – Rambling Guitarist – really managed to strike out and maintain a distinctive tone, but the narrative remained the same. With this second collection, the trajectory is quite the opposite. Rather than gradually move away from the formula, Volume 2 begins with a loose riff in the manner of Rambling Guitarist and gets more cartoonish, absurd, and unpredictable from there. Not that this precisely means the films are any more successful overall. The ratio remains the same – one solid bit of fun, one slog, and one that’s pretty near great. The success of this volume or the other depends on your taste for the silly or sour, and I’m a big fan of the silly they have here.

The set goes chronologically, and so shall we. Buichi Saitô’s Tokyo Mighty Guy (1960) gets off to a rousing beginning, with two musicals numbers (one the film’s theme song!), a fencing match, and a dropped-towel gag that sends time running backwards. This instantly-attained goodwill goes a long way as the film goes on. It’s loosely to do with a young man (Akira Kobayashi) who’s recently returned from studying in Paris and now helps his family run a Western-themed restaurant in the Ginza district. Chaos comes in the form of a politician who smashes his car into their restaurant, but he and the hero (whose name is, in fact, Jirô) form a quick bond as they both come to oppose the local mob. Even the intrusion of a suicide attempt doesn’t do much to dampen the light and cheery mood, which ensures the various threats will only go so far. Saitô also directed Kobayaski in The Rambling Guitarist, but this is not nearly so calm an exercise, even as the stakes are comparatively lower. They don’t quite hit the comedic beats the way they did the cool melancholy there, and the plot is almost defiantly nonsensical, but the cast is extremely game, and those musical numbers are a lot of fun.

Next we have the near-great 1962 film Danger Pays, Kô Nakahira’s crime adventure about the kidnapping of a counterfeit artist, a boatload of missing money, and the gang that goes after it. The initial band of outsiders is as predictably esoteric – Jo Shishido drives a one-seater car, another guy a dump truck (his character’s name is “Dump Truck”), and the third has a knack for figuring out the math of crime – as their initial rivalry. Relief comes in the form of Ruriko Asaoka as a secretary with surprising judo skills she’s planning to take to Paris (always with the Paris) but is all too happy to lend to the enterprise. Asaoka was also a bright spot in Tokyo Mighty Guy as a straightforward love interest, but here she’s given nearly as prominent a role as any of the men, and pulls of the fighting as adeptly as the comedy. She and Shishido make an excellent pair of not-quite-lovers, their partnership more charming than any romance could be. Her staunch refusal to fall into the narrative traps of being the only young woman in this story gives it tremendous spark, and when the tension ratchets up, she’s as resourceful – if not more so – than her companions. The tone and trajectory of their adventure resembles the feeling of the 1960s Batman series, at once playful and thrilling. It’s a combination that, when as lively as this, I find irresistible.

And then there’s Murder Unincorporated. Haruyasu Noguchi’s 1965 madcap comedy starts promisingly enough with a syndicate looking to avenge the assassination of one of one of their bosses by hiring a dozen or so expert killers, who are just loaded with an array of party tricks with which to do their dirty deeds. Noguchi’s short directorial career was a colorful one, including Nikkatsu’s only monster film (that’d be Monster From a Prehistoric Planet or Gappa: The Triphibian Monster, depending how you like your goofy titles), and he certainly goes full-tilt here. In the first half-hour or so, guns are fired as a way of changing the TV channel, dialing a phone, and adjusting a hung painting. They prove considerably deadlier on the streets, where the assassin is amassing his victims with each new kitsch-hitman the mob sends his way. On the one hand, you’d think sending twins after him would double your chances, but on the other, the guys apparently spent a good deal of time color-coordinating their suits to complement one another, so maybe their priorities aren’t in the right place, I don’t know. What I do know is what starts out as wackily amusing quickly becomes tiring.

With three films running between 80 and 85 minutes apiece packed onto a single disc, I was concerned for the quality of their presentation, but they not only look better on the whole than the last “Diamond Guys” collection, they each look better than a few of the single-film Arrow releases I’ve seen. Damage is quite minimal, color contrast and tone is exceptional and lovely – and these are colorful films – grain is light and evenly-distributed, and either Arrow has cropped out that annoying issue of the splice marks at the top and bottom of the frame over each cut, or they simply weren’t present in these transfers. At any rate, these are among the better presentations of Nikkatsu films I’ve seen on home video.

As with Volume 1, there aren’t many supplements here, just a couple video discussions with Japanese cinema expert Jasper Sharp, trailers for the film, and a booklet with essays by Stuart Galbraith IV, Tom Mes, and Mark Schilling, but these being the light fun romps that they are, I’m not sure a titanic degree of investigation is really required. And packaged together as they are at a reduced price (Amazon has it for under $30 right now), it’s a very appealing release. As mentioned, the films sort of vary in quality, but I found this a more enjoyable collection than its predecessor, and on the strength of Danger Pays and the charms of Tokyo Mighty Guy alone, I’d recommend it to genre fans.


 

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