I’ve written at length about how pleased I am outfits like Arrow Films and Eureka! Masters of Cinema keep putting out releases of old, often obscure Japanese films. It feels like Arrow must have made a deal with whatever is currently left of the venerable Nikkatsu studio for access to a huge swath of their back catalogue in the last couple of years, because they’ve steadily released volumes in collections like Nikkatsu Diamond Guys and Seijun Suzuki: The Early Years. Not every one of these forgotten films can be a classic, but it’s often fascinating just getting a taste of what Japanese cinema was like in the ‘50s or ‘60s. Sadly, the third film in the first volume of Nikkatsu Diamond Guys, The Rambling Guitarist (1959), cannot be described as a hidden gem.
Shot in colour, directed by Buichi Saito (Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in Peril), and starring a young Akira Kobayashi (Bakumatsu Taiyo-den, Retaliation), The Rambling Guitarist follows a guitar-carrying drifter who comes into the port city of Hakodate with a mysterious past. Kobayashi’s drifter, Shinji Taki, feels like a weird attempt at creating an incredibly ‘cool’ character that doesn’t really land. From his leather jacket to his acoustic guitar named Diane, it all feels like it’s trying too hard, and leaning oddly heavily on American pop culture that must have been popular at the time (or at least, that somebody hoped was popular at the time). He quickly gets caught up in the local criminal underworld – though I don’t think anyone ever says yakuza or gokudo or anything like that – and soon finds himself leaning on local businesses so that the boss, Akitsu, can buy out an area of seafront property and build a tourist trap.
There is a twist, of sorts, but the film is put together so loosely I honestly do not know if I followed the plot accurately. It emerges that Taki is no ordinary drifter – he’s an ex-cop. Or a current cop, undercover. It really doesn’t feel like he’s actually working for the police, even when he’s talking to a Kobe detective who just “happens” to be in Hakodate. Only as I’ve started typing up this review have I begun to question whether he was actually meant to be undercover. Similarly, there’s a wishy-washy romance subplot that doesn’t really go anywhere, and one of the families Taki leans on for Akitsu is actually Akitsu’s sister’s family, but there’s never any real tension.
There are really only two joys to be had out of The Rambling Guitarist: the unusual setting, and Jo Shishido. He literally emerges from beneath a coat to bring the movie to life any time he’s on screen, playing a slightly unhinged mobster with a penchant for life-or-death bets and pistol duels. As for the setting, it’s a pleasant surprise seeing somewhere other than Tokyo or Hiroshima as the locale for a gangster action movie. Hakodate is on the northern island of Hokkaido, a port sprawling to both edges of a narrow peninsula. It looks like the film, or at least some outdoor footage and views from the Hakodate Ropeway cable car, was actually shot there. There’s also a decent amount of action that takes place on the harbour or out at sea that, again, gives the film a different flavour and stops it from feeling like a carbon copy of other, contemporary Japanese action movies – it’s just a shame the movie itself isn’t very good.
Overall, it’s an underwhelming conclusion to the first Diamond Guys volume, but it hasn’t put me off exploring the rest of Nikkatsu’s early catalogue. Roll on Tokyo Mighty Guy!
The Rambling Guitarist / ギターを持った渡り鳥
Director: Buichi Saito
Japanese Release Date: 11th October, 1959
Version Watched: 77 min (Arrow Video, Nikkatsu Diamond Guys vol. 1)