Closer in scale and richness to the United States’ film industry than any other, Japanese cinema’s classical period is boiled down in the Western canon to the output of three or four major figures, and little else. While many major national cinemas — the USSR, for example — have suffered a similar fate, the truncation of Japan’s fertile movie heritage seems to conjure up – to those who are even slightly familiar with its breadth – a still vaster number of painful omissions.
But while the three films released in Arrow Films’ second taster of unknown, underseen, previously unreleased genre Japanese cinema — Diamond Guys Vol. 2 — might be far from some unearthed crypt in which masterpieces glossed over by Western tastemakers lie untouched, its pure marginality, and its implicit assertion of the low-key significance of an untapped wealth of minor and mediocre entertainments, makes it an essential release nonetheless.
As the previous set hinted, the Nikkatsu Film Corporation itself might serve as a useful metaphorical compass with which to navigate the complicated space of Japan’s transition between one period and another; that is, from the largely conservative family dramas and jidaigeki, familiar from the festival favourites of the post-war years, through to the youth films of the mid-to-late fifties, which were part represented in the previous Nikkatsu set. The rebellious spirit of those taiyo-zoku pictures and their antecedents gave way to both a political New Wave a few years later — where a whole new canon coalesced around a similarly restrictive roster of masters — and later a complete regeneration, taking the ethos to its logical conclusion, into an industry of pink films and Roman Porno through the 1970s.
The inspired groupings of both sets, the former consisting of three films from 1958-59 and the latter of a further three from 1960-65, suggest an overview of the period by heralding some of its least inspiring films. While the first volume contained the bona-fide classic Red Pier (1958) and an enchanting, stylish B-side, Voice Without a Shadow (1958), the producers at Arrow seem to have been more interested in following the throughline of the anomaly in the set; the musical-noir The Rambling Guitarist (1959). It’s a bold choice, and one that really hints that the producers did not have in mind the makings of an alternative canon in the mould of the Criterion Collection or Masters of Cinema. Instead, there seems to have been an underlying desire — one more valuable even than the urge to steadfastly excavate lost classics from the vault for renewed veneration — to give a ground-level view of some of the middling, lovably average cinema of the period.
And while the first set had a faint, lingering auteurist influence, suggested by the inclusion of Suzuki Seijun’s bold and nervy Voice Without a Shadow, its successor has been scrubbed clean of any trace of an auteurist sensibility (though devoted Nikkatsuans will recognise Kô Nakahira as the director of the seminal Crazed Fruit and the underrated Summer Storm). Likewise, the shift away from terse, cynical mystery thrillers towards geeky, low-brow comedy — obviously drawing on the enormous popularity and influence exerted by Jerry Lewis in Japan at the time — indicates that Arrow are looking to present a completely separate angle on the period. Both sets’ movies showcase an aspect of the “Diamond Guys” line; each film’s structuring principle seems to be to simply evince one or two attributes of a handful of stars whose light has faded with the passage of time.
One of the best actors (and faces) to ever work at Nikkatsu, Jô Shishido, takes up the majority of the spotlight with Dangers Paws (aka Danger Pays, 1962) and the uber-Lewisian Murder Unincorporated (1965). Both are loose, silly, inventive crime-thrillers, made on a tight budget at Nikkatsu and intended for the double-bill circuit. The former details the trials of a group of conmen who become embroiled in the theft of one billion yen; the conmen knock their brains out trying to convince the thieves, who now own the template used to print a soon-to-be defunct form of currency, that they require an expert counterfeiter for their purposes. The conmen, lead by Shushido’s “Glass-Hearted” Jo, have of course kidnapped Japan’s hundred-year-old premiere counterfeiter.
Several years later, Shushido played “Joe of Spades” in the even better, brasher Murder Unincorporated. It’s a sort of bloated, throwaway ensemble farce in the It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World style, about a group of assassins who are hired by a gangster syndicate to search for and rub out the elusive figure (Shushido) vengefully taking out their leadership one chairman at a time. Like Danger Paws, it’s stylish, hilarious, and mostly unnecessary; what distinguishes it, outside of a bravura sense for outlandish, gadget-based comedy, is Shushido’s natural command of a whole range of acting styles, both comedic and cooly dramatic.
While the same cannot be said for the anodyne screen presence of Akira Kobayashi in the largely unimaginative Tokyo Mighty Guy (1960), the pluralistic modus operandi of Arrow’s fine release seems best represented by the inclusion of this kind of mediocre material. Few companies would be bold enough to release two sets in the same mould, where three not-quite-classic films jibe on a purely minor film-historical level. On one hand, there’s the lounge lizard splendour of Shushido’s almost-background performance in Murder Unincorporated, and on the other there’s Kobayashi’s aggrandised, schmaltzy schematism (the comparison with the dreariest of Elvis movies still stands). The somewhat daring hypothesis, at least to my mind, is that audiences for the set will find both, regardless of quality, of some significant deal of genuine interest and will emerge with a fuller, factory-floor view of this complex and often overlooked historical period.
Nikkatsu Diamond Guys Volume 2 is out now on DVD and Blu-Ray.