Following on from their previous release, Arrow return to Nikkatsu’s 1960s output with three more films which each star some of their “Diamond Guys”; A-list stars, this time focussing again on Akira Kobayashi and Jo Shishido. In contrast to the three films featured in the Diamond Guys Vol. 1 set (Voice Without a Shadow, Red Pier, and The Rambling Guitarist), volume two showcases Nikkatsu’s lighter side with three feel-good tales each skewing much more towards comedy though still operating within the crime genre.
The first film in the set, Tokyo Mighty Guy, is, like The Rambling Guitarist, the first in what would later develop into a new film franchise led by star Akira Kobayashi. After beginning with a kitsch musical sequence which would be at home in any Hollywood fluff fest of the era, the film takes on a neighbourhood comedy aesthetic as aspirant middle-class guy Jiro becomes the big man around town. He’s well educated and has just returned from studying overseas in Paris but is working with his parents in a restaurant serving French cuisine which they have just opened in fashionable Ginza.
Jiro does as he pleases and doesn’t take any nonsense from anyone. He sends yakuza packing and helps a local bar owner sort out her financial and romantic problems (which are deeply intertwined) as well as the love life of one of her employees who’s been duped by a faithless rich guy. Western looking and modern in approach, this is a look at socially mobile city youth in 1960 just as the nation starts to push forward both economically and socially.
Danger Pays, by contrast, has less social commentary but takes on the challenging arena of the slapstick crime comedy. When a van containing watermarked paper destined for the mint is stolen, all the underworld is abuzz with petty crooks hoping to get their hands on Japan’s best forger. Eccentric trio “Glass Hearted Joe” (dapper dresser, extreme fear of the sound of scraping glass), Slide-Rule Tetsu (walks with a cane, likes maths), and Dump-Truck Ken (yeah, he has a dump truck) team up with martial arts enthusiast and former secretary Tomoko (Ruriko Asaoka) in a quest to get their hands on the (fake) money no matter what ridiculous scams they become involved in.
Quickfire slapstick humour at its finest, Danger Pays takes place in a cartoon-like world filled with bizarre stunts and ridiculous action. The breathless pace continues throughout but the tone shifts significantly in the final third as the gang find themselves trapped in a room which is about to be filled with gas and then holed up in an elevator shaft for an impromptu shootout. Despite the bodies and the blood the four continue with their ramshackle plotting but there are yet more surprises headed their way.
The surreal theme continues into the final film, for the also Shishido starring Murder Unincorporated. When one of five local gangsters is assassinated by “Joe of Spades” and the remaining four fear they’re next on his hit list, they hire a selection of eccentric assassin bodyguards to find and neutralise their enemy. Each of the hitmen has his own theme and signature weapons running from European poetry to baseball and an extreme fear of fish, but their opposing numbers are equally strange and the gang is about to find out that the situation is even more complicated than they thought it might be.
Murder Unincorporated exists within a strange meta bubble in which hitmen recount their sorry origin stories to convince us that they had no choice but to become contract killers. Inspired by the famous Kansai comedian Kobako Hanato, the film runs at a ferocious pace with complex wordplay and increasingly surreal set pieces to create a truly absurd colourful and cartoon world that makes very little actual sense but is extremely funny.
Nikkatsu is best known for its action output but this latest collection proves the “borderless’ nature of a genre which isn’t generally associated with comedy. Gone are the melancholy heroes of volume one - these are figures of fun, but in the nicest possible way. Danger Pays and Murder Unincorporated both lean more towards the surreal whereas Tokyo Mighty Guy’s humour is of a more mainstream, wholesome kind, and the film definitely takes place in a more recognisably realistic world (though heightened and with an “aspirational” edge). Even if Seijun Suzuki famously got himself fired for making movies which made no sense and no money, Nikkatsu’s ‘60s output was not always against a touch of surreal playfulness as these intensely colourful, often silly escapades demonstrate with ample style.