Arrow gives a classy treatment to these three Japanese gangster flicks

Much like the vaunted studio system run by Hollywood in its Golden Age, the venerable Nikkatsu in Japan would find leading talent and put them under contract for a series of unrelated films. Their Diamond line consisted mostly of tense criminal dramas and hard-boiled thrillers with recurring themes in the 1950s. Nikkatsu: Diamond Guys Volume One includes three such Japanese films from different directors. Noted Japanese directors Seijun Suzuki (Branded to Kill), Toshio Masuda (Rusty Knife) and Buichi Saito (Lone Wolf and Cub) direct stars such as Akira Koabyashi (Battles Without Honor and Humanity) and Yujiro Ishihara (Crazed Fruit) in this solid sampling of classic gangster movies.

Seijun Suzuki’s Voice Without A Shadow is the gem of this bunch. His first film made under his total control, it is a Hitchcockian thriller about a switchboard operator that overhears the voice of a killer. Asako once heard the voice of a murder suspect which has continued to haunt her. Years later Asako’s new husband invites his boss, Hamazaki, over for dinner and she realizes his voice is suspiciously like that of the killer. Before she can investigate further, Hamazaki is found dead and her husband becomes the prime suspect in a complicated underworld tale of crooked gangsters. Hideaki Nitani (Tokyo Drifter, Massacre Gun) stars but look for an appearance by genre star Jô Shishido.

Toshio Masuda’s Red Pier is a slick gangster tale set in Kobe starring movie icon Yujiro Ishihara as “Lefty” Jiro, a smooth criminal that accidentally sees a murder covered up as a crane accident. That gets him involved in a tricky situation with his own gang, all the while as he starts a love affair with the innocent Keiko, the sister of the murdered man. The problem for Jiro is that his current girlfriend, a night club dancer named Mami, desperately wants to stay with him. A local gangster masquerading as a businessman wants to force a local homeowner out in a land re-development deal.

… the Japanese studio had perfected this genre of b-movie crime films with steady direction and solid lead performances.

Akira Kobayashi (Battles Without Honor and Humanity) stars as nomadic street musician Shinji Taki in The Rambling Guitarist. The only color film in this set shares many similarities with Red Pier in terms of style. Both feature young men that have fallen in with criminals despite ambitions to be something more than a gangster. Taki quickly gets snapped up by a local gang for his fighting skills. He soon falls in love with his new boss’s daughter, a naive woman that doesn’t know what her father does for a living.

All three Nikkatsu Diamond Line films in this set are interesting variations on the same themes of young criminals getting in over their heads with corrupt gangsters and seeking the love of pure women. Churned out on a regular basis by Nikkatsu, the Japanese studio had perfected this genre of b-movie crime films with steady direction and solid lead performances. The Rambling Guitarist feels like a lost Elvis film from the Sixties with its emphasis on Taki’s singing and guitar playing as he rises in the yakuza.

If you enjoy the hard-boiled gangster tales spun by Hollywood in the Fifties with fast women and dangerous gangsters, Nikkatsu Diamond Guys Volume One will offer up three thrilling movies that are much in the same vein.

Movie ★★★★☆

Red Pier Blu-ray screen shot 3

All three Nikkatsu films in this set receive satisfactory film transfers. All three were shot in Nikkatsu Scope, their version of what most film buffs would know as CinemaScope here in the States. Red Pier’s elements are probably in the roughest shape of the three with some minor print damage and visible splices.

Released by Arrow Video from transfers provided by Nikkatsu, the three films share a single BD-50. That leaves little room for the high-bitrate AVC video encodes that Arrow Video has become known for on their most recent releases. Red Pier has slightly messy grain reproduction due to the reduced compression rates.

Voice Without A Shadow is a black-and-white scope film properly presented at 2.35:1. Red Pier is also a black-and-white scope film shown at 2.35:1. The lone color film in this set is The Rambling Guitarist, shown at a slightly wider 2.4:1 aspect ratio.

The three HD transfers all show their own peculiarities. Voice Without A Shadow offers the purest film experience. It features a strong black-and-white transfer with decent contrast and excellent gray-scale. It’s a film-like presentation marred only by the minor fluctuations in luminosity. Red Pier has the compression issues and some print damage, including what appears to be gate weave and telecine wobble. It also has a curious dichotomy between excellent interiors and blown-out exteriors. The Rambling Guitarist has rich black levels and is fairly sharp most of the time. Some optical ringing is visible on it.

None of these transfers compare to Arrow Video’s best efforts but actually represent a marked improvement over some of their prior Nikkatsu releases in terms of clarity and resolution. These are newish HD transfers with suitable detail. While they probably aren’t the final word on these films in a perfect world, they serve as excellent Blu-ray presentations all things considered.

Video ★★★☆☆

All three films include their original monaural Japanese soundtracks in 1.0 PCM. All three films were made using the Westrex Recording System, a common soundtrack technology for movies at the time.

Each soundtrack sounds roughly similar in terms of fidelity, though disappointingly, Rambling Guitarist has noticeable distortion in musical scenes. It was definitely recorded overly hot and the mono mix struggles with the frequent Japanese Pop used in the film. Some of the musical passages are less than pleasant in tonality.

Each film features optional English subtitles in a white font, presented inside the scope framing at all times.

Audio ★★★☆☆

Arrow Video makes this a three-disc set with their standard reversible sleeve. It includes newly commissioned artwork by Graham Humphreys. Two companion DVDs with the films are included with the single Blu-ray. A booklet includes new essays on all three films and director profiles by Stuart Galbraith, Tom Mes and Mark Schilling.

This comes up a little short in terms of their standard special features but few labels would have even bothered including this assortment for three obscure Japanese crime films. Arrow Video has made this a limited edition set of 3000 units.

Introduction To The Diamond Guys: Yujiro Ishihara (15:24 in HD) – Jasper Sharp provides a video discussion recapping Ishihara’s career in this interview.

Introduction To the Diamond Guys: Hideaki Nitani (10:21 in HD) – Jasper Sharp discusses Nitani’s films and his career in this interview.

Galleries – Extensive promotional image galleries for all three films

Voices Without A Shadow Trailer (03:08 in SD)

Red Pier Trailer (03:22 in SD)

The Rambling Guitarist Trailer (03:18 in SD)

Nikkatsu Diamond Guys Volume 2 Trailer (11:46 in SD) – Trailers for Tokyo Mighty Guy, Danger Paws and Murder Unincorporated.

Extras ★★☆☆☆

Full disclosure: This Blu-ray was provided to us for review. This has not affected the editorial process. For information on how we handle review material, please visit our about us page to learn more.

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Click on the images below for full resolution screen captures taken directly from the Blu-ray. Images have not been altered in any way during the process.

Editor note: Screens come from Red Pier. It was my mistake to only grab shots from one film, not Chris’.