Long before their better known (in the west) yakuza films and Roman Porno softcore erotica of the late sixties onwards, Nikkatsu inaugurated a star system in the fifties and contracted talent to their "Diamond Line", including the stars showcased in three films that comprise the NIKKATSU DIAMOND GUYS VOL. 2 Blu-ray/DVD combo set from Arrow Video USA.
Buichi Saitô's TOKYO MIGHTY GUY will be a change of pace to most western Nikkatsu fans as it’s a light screwball comedy indebted to the Hollywood musical with a plot that might have been handled differently just a few years later as one of the studio's youth pictures. Just returned from studying in Paris, Jirô Shimizu (Akira Kobayashi, represented previously in NIKKATSU DIAMOND GUYS VOL. 1's THE RAMBLING GUITARIST, also by Saitô) is prepared to take over his parents' restaurant to bring French cuisine to the area. When the car of ill-tempered former prime minister Onizaemon Ipponyari (Toranosuke Ogawa, THE SEVEN SAMURAI) crashes into the front of the restaurant, Jirô shocks his parents and the police by demanding an apology from the older man (he doesn't get it). Jirô also offends the gangsters of the Typhoon Club – lead by slick Hamakawa (Shôichi Ozawa, THE BALLAD OF NARAYAMA) – when he refuses their offer to deal with Ipponyari, a move which they believe will bring their gang fame. The Typhoon Club nevertheless approach Ipponyari for compensation, but they are humiliated not only by Ipponyari's defiance but also Jirô who turns up to refute their claims of acting on his behalf and then given them a sound thrashing with the unwanted help of a spear-swinging Ipponyari. Taking a liking to the younger man, Ipponyari pays not only for the repair of his parents' restaurant but for its upgrading and a grand opening with high profile guests along with Typhoon Club member Senkichi (Hiroshi Kondô, CRUEL GUN STORY) who turns up looking not for revenge but for a job as apprentice cook. Identifying himself as an Edokko (a term for natives of Edo but also identified with assertive character traits), Jirô not only stands up for himself but has a personal code of honor that says he cannot refuse requests for help, even when they come from shopkeeper/closet courtesan Lila-ko (Sanae Nakahara, LADY SNOWBLOOD) requests he pose as her suitor – much to the annoyance of bathhouse girl Hideko (Ruriko Asaoka, GOYOKIN) who has been pining for him since childhood – so that she may free herself from three "patrons" who have discovered the existence of one another. This is just the first of several vignettes that also involve Lila-ko's shopgirl Toshiko (Ikuko Chishiro) who has been dishonored by a wealthy suitor (Ikuko Chishiro, RUSTY KNIFE) and a land-grabbing plot between the Typhoon Club and a businessman through unscrupulous means that brings all of the film's story strands together for the climax (which is then followed by a comical brawl).
"A wise man never courts danger" but "danger is where the money is" according to the theme song of DANGER PAYS from director Kô Nakahira (CRAZED FRUIT), a more consistently funny and energetic action caper comedy. Upon learning of the theft of enough watermarked paper to print 1.08 million yen, a trio of criminals – suave Glass-Hearted Joe (Jo Shishido, MASSACRE GUN), probability-motivated Slide-Rule Tetsu (Hiroyuki Nagato, PIGS AND BATTLESHIPS), and strong-armed Dump Truck Ken (Kôjirô Kusanagi, DARKNESS AT NOON) – individually hit upon the idea to abduct Japan's number one counterfeiter Sakamoto (Bokuzen Hidari, IKIRU) and ransom his services to the whoever has the paper. Unwilling to collaborate, the three get in each other's way at the airport and lose Sakamoto to a group of gangsters. While Slide Rule Ken is stuck with Sakamoto's nagging wife (Toyoko Takechi, THE MANSTER), Joe traces the gang's contact to a false front office solely manned by judo champion receptionist Tomoko (TOKYO MIGHTY GUY's Ruriko Asaoka) who is not too pleased to be fired when Joe infiltrates a call from nightclub owner Hijikata (Torahiko Hamada, KWAIDAN) and insists on going along with Joe to collect her pay. Meanwhile, Ken has also learned the whereabouts of Sakamoto (who insisted on a noisy place to work with modern geishas as entertainment) by torturing one of Hijikata's men. With Tomoko creating a diversion by hijacking Ken's truck and backing it into the club's front entrance, Joe abducts Sakamoto only to lose him to Tetsu who has been trailing him. Tomoko has stumbled upon the hiding place of the paper and hijacks it to profit for herself. Hijikata's gang, however, are not playing games and need to get the money printed before the Japanese government replaces the old printing presses with new ones and have decided they need to eliminate Joe, Ken, Tetsu, and Tomoko before they attract any other attention to the counterfeiting scheme.
A small port city controlled by The Five Rays Club becomes murder town in MURDER UNINCORPORATED – from Haruyasu Noguchi (MONSTER FROM A PREHISTORIC PLANET) – with the assassination of drug dealer Yoyogi with a torn Six of Spades card left at the scene. When the remaining heads of the gang – Igawa in charge of port rights, Kishida in charge of the sex industries, contraband trader Sakurada, and premium buyer Kumoi – receive playing cards in descending order from Five of Spades to Two of Spades denoting the order in which they will be killed by supposedly retired hitman Joe of Spades, they come to the conclusion that he must have been hired by Joutaru, the child of their squad leader who they murdered twenty years before in order to bankroll their postwar activities. They decide to hire ten hitmen from the Assassin Agency in order to protect them and discover the identity of Joe of Spades (whose only identifying mark is a mole on the sole of his left foot). Among the ten are the more memorable poet Heine Maki whose book of verse is a gun triggered by turning pages, disgruntled baseball player On whose bat is loaded, pint-sized Chibi who fancies himself to be Al Capone III and uses an explosive slingshot, knife-wielding ichthyophobic chef Knife Tatsu, and penny-pinching Konmatsu. While the killers employ different methods to ferret out Joe of Spades, the killer continues to take out his targets. We learn that Joe of Spades is not behind the killings but a rival gang lead by Anzai who in turn hires his own series of killers – among them sailor Juji whose pipe is a gun, 006 whose attaché case dispenses laughing gas and grenades, and even Anzai's own daughter Emi (Yumiko Nogawa, GATE OF FLESH) who is working undercover as a local bar owner – to take out the Five Rays' hired men. Although he has never killed anyone, boastful Konmatsu takes friendly mechanic Joji (Jo Shishido) under his wing not realizing that he is the real Joe of Spades and has been observing the carnage from the sidelines. Not as cohesively exciting and amusing as DANGER PAYS – with many gags falling flat including the backstories of some of the assassins – MURDER UNINCORPORATED is an entertaining timewaster despite the limited amount of screentime devoted to Shishido. The ending comic stinger does not really make sense since the three characters in the scene did not manage to kill anyone in the film (and one of them had never managed to kill anyone period). TOKYO DRIFTER's Eiji Gô appears as Anzai's unnamed eldest son and heir.
Like the first volume of NIKKATSU DIAMOND GUYS, volume two is a three-disc Blu-ray/DVD combo set with the three features and extras carefully encoded to fit on a BD50 – without the sort of compression issues we have encountered with multi-feature Blu-ray discs from the likes of Echo Bridge – and split between two DVDs. TOKYO MIGHTY GUY looks softer, but that may be as much a side effect of Nikkatsu's archival care as conceptual given the dreamy Hollywood musical feel and reliance largely on pastel colors. DANGER PAYS and MURDER UNINCORPORATED look better with saturated red blood and gel lighting popping along with the more eye-popping set design and costume choices. The LPCM 1.0 mono tracks are all clean and relatively free of hiss while the optional English subtitles cover all of the dialogue but sometimes have to rush to translate both onscreen text and dialogue (or credits and song lyrics during the credits).
Jasper Sharp provides introductions covering the careers of the two Diamond Guy stars in this set. In "Diamond Guy: Joe Shishido" (9:15), Sharp discusses how the actor was initially cast as naïve boys until he underwent plastic surgery and got cheek implants (despite his good looks and tough guy demeanor, he is usually described as "chipmunk-cheeked"), his work for Nikkatsu with Seijun Suzuki (Shishido left Nikkatsu shortly after Suzuki was fired but most contract actors did around the period as the studio switched to Roman Porno). "Diamond Guy: Aikira Kobayashi" (11:07) looks at the singer/actor's Nikkatsu career including TOKYO MIGHTY GUY and the RAMBLING GUITAR series as well as his later films when he bulked up a little. Trailers and still galleries are provided for all three films along with trailers for all six films in the recently-released OUTLAW GANGSTER VIP COLLECTION. Not included for review are the reversible sleeve featuring brand new artwork by Graham Humphreys and the booklet featuring new writing on all the films and director profiles by Stuart Galbraith IV, Tom Mes and Mark Schilling. (Eric Cotenas)
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