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Thread: The Beautiful World of Nikkatsu Action (1954-1971)

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    Senior Member Maito Guy's Avatar
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    The Beautiful World of Nikkatsu Action (1954-1971)

    New thread here to discuss all the action as well as non-action flicks the studio Nikkatsu produced from its return to movie production in 1954 until the production stop in 1971 before changing their program pictures to the infamous Roman Porno line.

    Over the last few years there seem to have been more and more releases of these movies from Arrow Films, Criterion, and a few others. While I'm sometimes baffled at the selection processes (especially with the Diamond Guys boxes from Arrow), I strongly hope this trend is going to continue and more western viewers will be able to enjoy some of the hidden treasures remaining from this period.

    For myself Nikkatsu Action is probably the most fun and entertaining line of program pictures which got produced in Japan (note: this may not be ultimately because studios churned out literally thousands of movies beginning with the 1950ies, just too many of them to know for sure). I've seen much of what is readily available for home viewing from Nikkatsu of this period released in Japan and other countries and have also read a couple of books about this topics only released in Japan. Within this thread I'd like to give various insights into these pictures from a social, critical and also as much as possible production point of view.

    I'm planning to basically work myself through this period periodically with an emphasis on the main male stars (for example: Films of Shishido Joe from 1963-1967) and also post short critiques of the films I just saw. This will take some time to get finished but I think these flicks are worth to be seen by a wider audience. Of course everyone here is more than welcomed to discuss the movies, stars, directors and everything else in relation to Nikkatsu Action.

    Let's have some fun

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    Senior Member Maito Guy's Avatar
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    Challenge for Glory (Eikou he no chousen; 1966, Toshio Masuda)

    This is one of the later movies of the prime star of Nikkatsu from this period, Yujiro Ishihara. Yujiro churned out about 90 films for the studio beginning with "Season of the Sun" in 1956 up until "The World of a Man" in 1971. "Challenge for Glory" is one of the later films in the middle period of Nikkatsu Action ranging from about 1963 up until 1967. This was a very fruitful time for Yujiro in which many of his famous "Mood" action films were shot. In those he usually starred alongside Ruriko Asaoka and Nitani Hideaki. Just as the "Mood" within the name may suggest those movies had a more melodramatic base than many of the action flicks he starred in before, but more on that at a later point.

    "Challenge for Glory" actually is not really a "Mood" action movie. Besides the three main stars of the "Mood" action films being Ishihara, Asaoka and Nitani there also are a few other motives which get repeated in these movies, like a kind of betrayal from the female character (usually in connection with Nitani) and a somewhat happy and sentimental past our main hero and heroine shared together. While Asaoka is the main love interest in this one both of the above mentioned elements do not really exist in this one.

    More than a "Mood" action "Challenge for Glory" feels like a mixture of many of Yujiro's films up until this point together with a completely new note on top of it. Yujiro plays an ex-boxer rising up to the boss of a business empire. He manages to do so together with his friends played by Ruriko Asaoka and Tamio Kawachi. Alongside this process he gets into trouble with the yakuza who threaten to destroy his business and everything he has built up through his own hard work.

    While the movie somehow feels like a combination of the "Salarymen" movies Yujiro shot up until about 1962 and the more straight action flicks he did before, there are also some melodramatic elements included. Completely new is the type of character Yujiro plays in this one. He played "boss" roles before, but in a more personal protective way, like in "Rusted Knife" or "I Am Waiting" in which he stares as a bar owner. In this one the boss role is much more active with a clear intention to dominate and build up a big business. Maybe reflective of the star himself at that time as the head of Ishihara Productions.

    "Challenge for Glory" actually got produced by Ishihara Productions and only the distribution was done by Nikkatsu. The direction from Toshio Masuda is as usual really lively and interesting but overall all the different elements of the film don't add up to a great bigger picture. I'd say this one was quite enjoyable, but overall nothing too special. Interesting was the use of Jazz music throughout the whole movie without a theme song sung by the star himself (one of the view Ishihara movies without a theme song).


    Yujiro as the boxer. An image well known even to western viewers from "I Am Waiting".


    The guy on the left plays a somewhat Columbo-like police detective and has immense fun doing so. I can't remember this guy from other Nikkatsu productions but he really elevated every scene of the film he was in.


    Our three main characters together after a fist fight with some Yakuza. From left to right: Yujiro Ishihara, Tamio Kawachi (should be a somewhat recognizable face to western viewers from the "Battles Without Honor and Humanity" series as well as from some of the films released in the Kurahara Koreyoshi Eclipse Collection).


    Masuda and his cameraman at work. Like how this shot naturally lets our eyes wander to the woman in the background.


    Yujiro and Ruriko together. Despite the "mood" element being more than thin in this movie shots like these let the heart of the fans run faster.


    The final showdown is placed at an indoor ice skate hall. This is probably the best scene in the whole movie. Love the fog over the ice in this shot.

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    An Andalusian Dog enandalusiskhund's Avatar
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    Great thread! I have only seen what little has trickled into the west, but I will be following this with great interest.
    Looking for Orozco the Embalmer (Camera Obscura) and the Swedish theatrical poster of Breaking Point (Vibenius/"Ron Silberman Jr.", 1975).

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    Senior Member Takuma's Avatar
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    Great thread! I'm more of a Toei guy, and haven't seen much of Nikkatsu Action, but it will be interesting to learn more about the genre.

    What I've seen so far is a few Suzuki films, Criterion's Nikkatsu Noir set, and couple of other random films (like 3 Seconds to Explosion, a few of Hasebe's films, one of the rambling guitarist -type of films, but I can't remember which one, etc.)

    I've had Velvet Hustler R2J dvd since it was released, but I still haven't unwrapped it. I also got Arrow's Gangster VIP set but haven't watched any of them yet.

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    Scholar of Sleaze Paul L's Avatar
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    Nice thread!! I watched the second DIamond Guys boxset the week before last. Odd choice of films, linked by comedy and their 'spoofy' nature. I enjoyed them, though I prefer the monochrome, moody, film noir style pictures that Nikkatsu made.
    'You know, I'd almost forgotten what your eyes looked like. Still the same. Pissholes in the snow'

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    Senior Member Maito Guy's Avatar
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    Nice that the thread got such a warm welcome! Thanks everyone

    Quote Originally Posted by Takuma View Post
    Great thread! I'm more of a Toei guy, and haven't seen much of Nikkatsu Action, but it will be interesting to learn more about the genre.

    What I've seen so far is a few Suzuki films, Criterion's Nikkatsu Noir set, and couple of other random films (like 3 Seconds to Explosion, a few of Hasebe's films, one of the rambling guitarist -type of films, but I can't remember which one, etc.)

    I've had Velvet Hustler R2J dvd since it was released, but I still haven't unwrapped it. I also got Arrow's Gangster VIP set but haven't watched any of them yet.
    With me it's more of the opposite. From Toei I have seen most of the Pinky Violence films (love them by the way) and some of the later Jitsuroku Yakuza films but have rarely seen any of the Ninkyo films from the 60ies. Hope that I will be able to close this gap somewhere soon though.

    Definitely go for Velvet Hustler and the first two Gangster VIP films. All three more or less masterworks of the genre in my opinion. The rest of the Gangster VIP series is still ok but can't reach the highs of the first two despite some good moments every now and then.

    Quote Originally Posted by Paul L View Post
    Nice thread!! I watched the second DIamond Guys boxset the week before last. Odd choice of films, linked by comedy and their 'spoofy' nature. I enjoyed them, though I prefer the monochrome, moody, film noir style pictures that Nikkatsu made.
    I have the set at home but haven't watched it yet. I know two of the films already, Tokyo Mighty Guy and Danger Pays. I think they are quite ok, but as you said these are some really odd choices. If one knows more of the other films released with all the Diamond Guys even more so. Just hope that the set sells well enough for a third one.

    Just to explain a little bit what I mean by odd choices. The Diamond Line originally consisted out of four starlets: Yujiro Ishihara, Akira Kobayashi, Keiichiro Akagi and Koji Wada. After Akagi died in a tragic accident on the set and Yujiro broke his leg skiing Nikkatsu promoted Joe Shishido and for a short time also Nitani Hideaki into the Diamond Line. Later Tetsuya Watari and Hideki Takahashi also got somehow promoted into the Diamond Line, but I am actually not 100% sure wether Nikkatsu still called it like that later on.

    In set one there is one film starring Ishihara (Red Pier) and one film starring Kobayashi (first entry of the Wataridori series). The third one is a Suzuki B-Movie starring Nitani but actually long before he got promoted into the Diamond Line. I'm completely ok with the ones starring Ishihara and Kobayashi but just can't get why they chose the Suzuki one as the third movie. Even if they picked Suzuki because his name is somewhat known in the west there would have been better choices starring for example Koji Wada or even Nitani Hideaki after he got promoted. Still, I was happy to see this little early Suzuki gem.

    The second set continues with another film starring Kobayashi in one of his more comic roles, but definitely not one of his more defining and another one with Shishido Joe, also with a more comedic touch. I think they actually made a good choice with the Shishido one because he was somewhat known for his comedic roles and Danger Pays definitely is one of the better not yet released comedies with him. As for the third one, I haven't seen it yet but it really seems more like an ensemble piece with Shishido only having a small part, but I might be mistaken?

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    Scholar of Sleaze Paul L's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Maito Guy View Post

    In set one there is one film starring Ishihara (Red Pier) and one film starring Kobayashi (first entry of the Wataridori series). The third one is a Suzuki B-Movie starring Nitani but actually long before he got promoted into the Diamond Line. I'm completely ok with the ones starring Ishihara and Kobayashi but just can't get why they chose the Suzuki one as the third movie. Even if they picked Suzuki because his name is somewhat known in the west there would have been better choices starring for example Koji Wada or even Nitani Hideaki after he got promoted. Still, I was happy to see this little early Suzuki gem.

    The second set continues with another film starring Kobayashi in one of his more comic roles, but definitely not one of his more defining and another one with Shishido Joe, also with a more comedic touch. I think they actually made a good choice with the Shishido one because he was somewhat known for his comedic roles and Danger Pays definitely is one of the better not yet released comedies with him. As for the third one, I haven't seen it yet but it really seems more like an ensemble piece with Shishido only having a small part, but I might be mistaken?
    I'd guess the Suzuki film was chosen because of the fact his name is recognisable in the West. Actually, the Suzuki picture was my favourite in that set: I hadn't seen VOICE WITHOUT A SHADOW before and loved it. There are lots of clever little details within the mise-en-scene, such as the Hannya mask that crops up at certain points in the film.

    TOKYO MIGHTY GUY was fine but meanders a bit in the middle before coming together at the end in a climax that anticipates THE GRADUATE by several years. The comedy is all over the place and the whole film, whilst enjoyable, feels quite unfocused (imo). DANGER PAYS was very good, I thought. Shishido showed a good talent for physical comedy in that film. Shishido's part in MURDER UNINCORPORATED is fairly substantial and important to the plot. That film takes a grapeshot approach in its humour and, in its tone, feels like a Peter Sellers film. In its plotting, it definitely reminded me of another (American) film from the same period, probably one of the Matt Helm pictures, but I can't put my finger on it at the moment as it's been a while since I've seen those films.
    'You know, I'd almost forgotten what your eyes looked like. Still the same. Pissholes in the snow'

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    Scholar of Sleaze Paul L's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Maito Guy View Post
    Definitely go for Velvet Hustler and the first two Gangster VIP films. All three more or less masterworks of the genre in my opinion. The rest of the Gangster VIP series is still ok but can't reach the highs of the first two despite some good moments every now and then.
    I watched the Gangster VIP films pretty much back to back when the Arrow set was released a month or two ago, as I had to write a review of it, and found the first two pictures as enjoyable as I remembered them to be, and then the subsequent films (some of which I hadn't seen before) felt much like lesser entries - most likely because I watched the whole series in quick succession and couldn't help comparing them to the first two pictures.
    'You know, I'd almost forgotten what your eyes looked like. Still the same. Pissholes in the snow'

    http://www.paul-a-j-lewis.com (my photography website)
    'All explaining in movies can be thrown out, I think': Elmore Leonard

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    Senior Member Maito Guy's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Paul L View Post
    I'd guess the Suzuki film was chosen because of the fact his name is recognisable in the West. Actually, the Suzuki picture was my favourite in that set: I hadn't seen VOICE WITHOUT A SHADOW before and loved it. There are lots of clever little details within the mise-en-scene, such as the Hannya mask that crops up at certain points in the film.

    TOKYO MIGHTY GUY was fine but meanders a bit in the middle before coming together at the end in a climax that anticipates THE GRADUATE by several years. The comedy is all over the place and the whole film, whilst enjoyable, feels quite unfocused (imo). DANGER PAYS was very good, I thought. Shishido showed a good talent for physical comedy in that film. Shishido's part in MURDER UNINCORPORATED is fairly substantial and important to the plot. That film takes a grapeshot approach in its humour and, in its tone, feels like a Peter Sellers film. In its plotting, it definitely reminded me of another (American) film from the same period, probably one of the Matt Helm pictures, but I can't put my finger on it at the moment as it's been a while since I've seen those films.
    From the first set I prefer RED PIER with VOICE WITHOUT A SHADOW and THE RAMBLING GUITARIST coming in at a close second together. Yujiro's role in RED PIER was one of the defining ones for his star image over the next few years after the film got released. Coolness just seems to pour out of him so effortlessly in this one. Some of the characters he plays have the problem of being rather one-dimensional at times, which is more often a problem of a rather weak script, but not so in RED PIER. Really interesting character and just made to be played by Ishihara.

    Seems like MURDER UNINCORPORATED may be better than I expect it to be. If there is enough Shishido Joe I think that I'd be able to quite enjoy it. Let's see, have to watch it soon I guess.

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    Senior Member Maito Guy's Avatar
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    Escape Train (Toubou ressha; 1966, Mio Ezaki)
    This one plays in Japanese occupied Manchuria at the end of World War 2. Yujiro stares in one of his typical leader roles which do not let much place left for character development. ESCAPE TRAIN is kind of a lesser version of another war film he starred in before, THE ZERO FIGHTERS (Zerosen kurokumo ikka; 1962, Toshio Masuda). After hearing about the Japanese defeat Yujiro and his group have to escape to the sea to get back to Japan, but the only train remaining isn't quite in a condition to get them there. While defending the train station from Chinese soldiers they try to get the train running again.


    One of many beautiful shots in this movie. Even if the plot and characters overall aren't that interesting and well played out most of the times there are at least some nice visuals or interestingly directed scenes to be found.


    Don't think this guy was a Nikkatsu actor at the time. I remember seeing him in one of the later Kawashima Yuzo movies. He plays a Japanese disguised as a Chinese because he can't stand the Japanese Imperialism. He ends up grouping together with Yujiro and his men. He was the most fun and interesting character of the movie (on a sidenote, it's always fun when Japanese actors play a Chinese speaking broken Japanese, but I guess this is something sadly getting lost in translation).


    Of course a female heroine/love interest can't miss in a Yujiro film. This time not played by Ruriko Asaoka but by Yukiyo Toake. She actually got featured in quite a few films together with Yujiro around that time, but was never really blessed with good roles to play.


    The film features a few nice action scenes, especially at the end. The Japanese film industry still had some money left to produce these kind of movies back then.

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