In 1951, the year of the first colour film in Japan, work began on a new production studio at Nikkatsu Film Corporation. The company, under the supervision of president Hori Kyusaku, resumed production in 1954 for the first time since the early wartime period. As Nikkatsu—Japan’s oldest studio, already armed with a considerable distribution and exhibition network from its interim as a crutch for the other studios—got on its feet, the executives tried their hand, rather unsuccessfully, at producing the kind of prestige projects frequently released by Shochiku. Unsuccessful in large part because the latter studio’s catalogue of directors included two giants of Japanese film, Mizoguchi Kenji and Ozu Yasujiro, as well as frequent collaborations with studio-hopping independents Kurosawa Akira, Naruse Mikio, and Kinoshita Keisuke.
Without the name directors and star actors of their rivals, Nikkatsu’s attempt to ape Shochiku’s prestige strategy pushed the company to the brink of collapse. Facing bankruptcy, the studio heads decided to focus their resources on cheap, sensationalistic, youth-oriented taiyo-zoku (sun tribe) pictures. The movies produced in this brief period caused a minor moral panic in Japan, and pressure from the country’s more conservative elements lead to both Nikkatsu and Daiei (who had also began producing films in a similar vein) toning down the sex and violence in their projects. The final taiyo-zoku movie was released in 1956, though the genre’s lingering influence remained.
The period that immediately followed the cessation of taiyo-zoku officially being produced at Nikkatsu lead to some of the nerviest, boldest work in Japanese youth films. (It is ironic then that Kido Shiro, head of Shochiku Studios, later tried to capitalise on the youth pictures boom at Nikkatsu by breaking with company policy and commissioning work from an untested 30 year-old director named Oshima Nagisa. It backfired: Kido pulled Night and Fog in Japan [Nihon no Yoru to Kiri, 1960], the final film in the trilogy, from theatres as Oshima resigned from Shochiku’s payroll.) Three of Nikkatsu’s youth movies from 1958-59 – one of the studio’s richest periods – are revived in the first iteration of Arrow Films’ excellent “Diamond Guys” box-set.
Two of the movies included in the set introduce the viewer to an actor from Nikkatsu’s Diamond Line: Kobayashi Akira in Saito Buichi’s dull but entertaining The Rambling Guitarist (Guitar o motta wataridori, 1959) and Hideaki Nitani, a very underrated second-lead, in Voice Without a Shadow (Kagenaki koe, 1958). Also included in the set is Masuda Toshio’s classic Red Pier (Akai hatoba, 1958), which boasts the quintessential performance from Ishihara Yujiro, whose sexual charisma and dangerous hedonistic energy inspired the studio to create the Diamond Line in his absence. (He left the studio in the early sixties to found his own production company, leaving Nikkatsu to consolidate their “Diamond Guys” line-up into a definable brand.)
The three films provide a commendable introductory dip into Nikkatsu’s late 1950s pool of youth-targeted productions. Red Pier is a loungey seaside thriller charged with salacious energy, featuring a knockout performance by Ishihara, a good feeling for nasty, expressive side bits (a hepcat dancer wrapping herself around a pole in the centre of a crowded bar; chirruping firecrackers used to scare cops into thinking they’ve walked into a gunfight; a cabbie caroming his car around a bend and nearly flattening a hapless child), and several outstanding images, the best of which may be a fist-fight in which the cameraman seems to duck and dive in harmony with the arcing swoops of the fighters’ punches.
The Rambling Guitarist’s stolid remix of the Elvis-movie formula makes it an interesting historical curiosity, if Saito’s bland direction seems at times to claw interest out of the frame—he shoots fist fights in staid wides, cutting steadily and without flair, so that each move is clumsily atomised from the larger chain of action. (The only exception being a late-stage shootout, jazzily framed so that the bullets knock down two people in the left and centre third of the frame respectively, and shatters a plant-pot on the right side.) Still, it’s the only colour film in the set, and though Kobayashi’s the least dynamic of the three Diamond Guys, I was mumbling the tune to his movie’s title track in the shower for days afterward.
The real discovery of the set is Voice Without a Shadow, a knockout early film by the great Suzuki Seijun. It’s a bizarrely effective film, considering that Suzuki switches our identification figure at the halfway point—shifting it away from an internal battle of suggested rape and limitless guilt to a beguiling detective mystery—and disposing of the extremely charismatic villain just as his character edges towards being a tangible threat. With its black-gloved killer, stylish urban settings, uneasy but sage amateur sleuth in the lead role, it makes for an unusual but striking companion to another recent Arrow Films release, Dario Argento’s Deep Red (Profundo rosso, 1975). (Though I’ve always preferred Argento’s abstract ‘80s output to his more celebrated work in the ‘70s, it’s undeniable that the new 4K transfer of Deep Red is anything less than phenomenal: it lives up to the film’s title, suggesting that it may indeed be possible to crawl through the membrane of the screen and lower yourself into the depths of some of those hot reds.)
Juxtaposed by a same-day release, Suzuki’s magnificent, superficial Voice Without a Shadow often resembles a sort of proto-giallo in the Argento vein: there’s even the same summative discussion of the psychology and pathology of the killer, delivered stalwartly by a doctor in the film’s final scene. Like Hitchcock—the source of the device and a clear inspiration in the case of both Suzuki and Argento—the filmmakers trust that the audience is riding atop the cresting wave of feeling, and is not slavishly attacking the convoluted plot with logic. It’s as if in both cases, in Voice Without a Shadow and in Deep Red, only the simple logic of the story, and not the carnal pulse of the emotions it engenders, could possibly be explained.
Nikkatsu Diamond Guys and Deep Red are out now through Arrow Films.