Japanese studio Nikkatsu survived the privations of the immediate post-War years thanks to ownership of a chain of theaters that kept them afloat while the domestic film industry struggled to recover. As the immediate aftermath of the War began to recede during the 1950s, and as the domestic film production industry began to find its footing, Nikkatsu struck gold with taiyozoku (Sub Tribe) films, and shortly thereafter, the more crime-and-action centered “borderless action” movies. Nikkatsu was one of the first studios to recognize, like American International Pictures in the United States, the vast untapped potential of appealing to the emerging youth market. Post WWII, there was suddenly a growing population of young men and women who had disposable income that no one in their age group had ever had before, and they wanted to spend that money somewhere. To promote the group of youthful contract players at the heart of these genres, Nikkatsu’s marketing department struck upon the clever idea of selling their top young stars as a brand name—the Diamond Line.
Many Japanese studios were cranking out the same films as they’d always made, geared toward an older audience and often reinforcing concepts of conformity and responsibility. Or they were cranking out family friendly fare.No one was making movies that the youth wanted to watch, at least until Nikkatsu released A Season in the Sun (Taiyō no kisetsu, 1956), the first of the Sun Tribe films. Here at last was a movie that spoke directly to the tastes of young Japan—and young Japan embraced it and the films that followed in its wake for exactly the same reasons the cultural watchdogs and older generation condemned them. “Sun Tribe” films were considered disreputable, and the young man who emerged as the poster boy for the genre, Yujiro Ishihara, was perceived as the real-life embodiment of his on-screen characters: brash, amoral, decadent, disrespectful, and an affront to everything that was good and decent in polite Japanese society. Needless to say, restless young boys and girls, especially those in their late teens and twenties, flocked to support him.
Film studios are willing to shoulder the burden of the morality police taking shots at them as long as the box office receipts are strong enough. Nikkatsu realized that making movies that pissed off the elders and enthralled teens and college students resulted in more than enough financial return to make the scorn of society’s guardians worth bearing. They retooled many of their films to appeal more to youthful tastes, adding more contemporary music, more fashionable clothing, and a more Western approach both to art design and direction. When director Toshio Masuda started blending these “youth in rebellion” films with yakuza films, and adding a healthy dose of influence from the French New Wave, Nikkatsu mukokuseki—borderless action—cinema was born. The Diamond Line was there to make it shine.The original Diamond Line, launched in 1960, consisted of Yujiro Ishihara (upon whom almost all of the studio’s early success was dependent), Koji Wada, Keiichiro Akagi, and Akira Kobayashi.
In its early days, borderless action was carried primarily by Ishihara, Kobayashi, and Jo Shishido, not at first a member of the Line. When Ishihara injured himself in a skiing accident and had to go out of rotation for seven months, Nikkatsu ramped up Akira Kobayashi’s schedule and promoted Shishido to the Diamond Line crew. Further tragedy struck when Akagi was killed in an accident—though this only served to entrench the James Dean-like romantic image of these hot and hot-headed young stars. Internationally, Shishido is probably the best known of Nikkatsu’s superstars, thanks to his starring role in Seijun Suzuki’s Branded to Kill, a film that ended Suzuki’s career (for decades, anyway), flopped in Japan, and became an international cult phenomenon. But if you had to pick the most solid workhorse of the Diamond Line, it would likely be Akira Kobayashi.
The Solid Rock of the Diamond Line
Akira Kobayashi’s father was in the film business, and Kobayashi himself entered the industry after showing up to one of Nikkatsu’s “New Faces” cattle calls. He catapulted to fame thanks to his role in the foundational borderless action film, Rusty Knife (Sabita naifu, 1958), and Leaving Tosa of the South (Nangoku Tosa o Ato ni Shite )a year later. Once he was going, there was no stopping the man. Before the Diamond Line name was coined, Kobayashi was a member of Nikkatsu’s “Bad Boy Trio,” along with Tamio Kawachi and Tadao Sawamoto. He slid into the image with ease, bringing an easy cool, a macho swagger, and an accomplished background in judo that made him a perfect fit for the rough and tumble sort of roles that became his mainstay for the decade-plus that he was at Nikkatsu. Like Yujiro Ishihara, Kobayashi also brought a smoldering yet laid-back intensity (if that makes any sense) to his roles. In other words, you believed without him seeming like he was trying to make you believe, and he didn’t have to lapse into fits of hammy histrionics to communicate the fact that he was meaner, tougher, angrier, and cooler than you.
Kobayashi’s success in Leaving Tosa of the South led to his casting in the lead role of what would become a nine-film series known as The Wanderer. In each installment, Kobayashi played a loner decked out in classic American Western gear, who drifted from town to town, solving people’s problems and throwing down against some shady yakuza or exploitative businessman. Kobayashi’s wanderer also carried a guitar with him, which he would use to woo young women—both in and out of the movies. Just as he was able to do his own fights and stunts, Kobayashi sang his own songs (common at the time), and his singing in The Wanderer series turned him into a pop music sensation on top of his film stardom. Among the women enamored by his suave ass-kicker image was frequent Wanderer co-star and one of the most popular female stars of the time, Ruriko Asaoka. Kobayashi and Asaoka followed the lead of their frequent on-screen pairings by striking up a romance in real life.
It came as a shock to everyone—especially Asaoka—when Kobayashi married pop singer Hibari Misora seemingly out of the blue. Asaoka left the Wanderer series shortly thereafter, though it doesn’t seem like it was because she was trying to escape working with Kobayashi. They starred together in many films after the surprise wedding. Not surprisingly, Kobayashi’s marriage to Hibari Misora only lasted a couple years. While Ishihara was busy tumbling down ski slopes and Akagi was being killed in what is usually referred to as a “backlot go-cart accident,” Kobayashi aired his bad boy tendencies out via stormy flings and ill-fated marriages. Although fodder for tabloids and the moral watchdogs who were already upset by Nikkatsu’s swingin’ leading men, at least Kobayashi’s brand of rebellious living left him fit for work. Hot on the heels of his Wanderer series, Kobayashi took on the starring role in the Drifter series, which was basically The Wanderer but without the fringed cowboy jacket. He was also the lead in the ‘Mite Guy series, about a mysterious gangster (with a noble heart, of course) who battles evil gangsters. In short order, he and Shishido became the go-to guys for Nikkatsu action.
James Bond and Camp Come Calling
For fans of ludicrous movies with gorgeous production design, 1966 was the start of something special. It’s the year that pop art and camp came to roost in the minds of ambitious, free-spirited young film makers across the world. Pop art was an art movement that emerged in 1950s’ Britain. The basic concept was that art, meaningful or otherwise, could be made from common and mass-produced items taken out of their original context. In a way, and as is probably true with many creative movements, it has a lot more to do with your attitude and your ability to explain (or bullshit about) what you’re doing. A few years after pop art there came “camp,” derived from the French phrase se camper, which means “to pose in an exaggerated fashion.” If ever there was a poster child for 1960s camp, it was the Batman television series, and the cinematic style that arose from camp “sensibilities” included outrageously ornate interior design, insane color schemes (both on the sets and with the lighting), and over-the-top fashion and costuming.
By this time, borderless action films, modeled on the cool of the French New Wave, were falling out of style. Films such as Velvet Hustler (Kurenai no nagareboshi, 1967) were redefining what Nikkatsu action was, still making callbacks to film noir and the French New Wave but infusing it with something less morose, snappier, and more in touch with the emerging go-go and rock ‘n’ roll culture. As the studio sought directors to tweak the formula, Kobayashi remained as a clear and dependable connection to what had been and what was coming. He slipped easily out of the rebellious youth roles of his early career and into the role of a more sophisticated and imposing man of action. Kobayashi may not be able to pull off the “Sun Tribe with a gun” mood of those movies, but he had his own more grown-up version of cool that still appealed to younger viewers. And then everyone started watching James Bond movies.
The first James Bond film, Dr. No, came out in 1962, but it was the third film in the series, 1964’s Goldfinger, that unleashed a deluge of imitators, each one doing its best (often with far less money) to out cool, out swank, and just plain outdo James Bond. Suddenly the world was crawling with smirking, smartly dressed secret agents who were as handy with the ladies as they were with a Walther PPK (or the P38 — either would do, really). In the wake of Goldfinger, pretty much every country tried its hand at the swingin’ spy genre. Many of these films leaned heavily into both camp and pop art. In England, there was Modesty Blaise starring Monica Vitti and Terence Stamp. In Italy, there was the cinematic debut of Kriminal, a master thief who parades about in a skeleton motif body stocking, as well as the Bond-alike, Golden Boy (Altin Çocuk, 1966). The United States had James Coburn in Our Man Flint. On TV, there was everything from The Avengers starring Diana Rigg, to The Man from UNCLE.
In 1965, they released Thunderball, the most lavish, expensive, and over-the-top James Bond film to date. But what Bond lacked was a finger on the fast-emerging counterculture. Bond certainly appealed to many young viewers in his own way, but there was a new generation just coming to prominence that had a more alternative outlook on life, and who might look at Bond films as just a little too reactionary. Too authoritarian. Maybe even too grown up. Bond was all tuxedos, orchestral music, and exclusive cocktail parties. He didn’t hang out in underground rock clubs. He didn’t wear jeans. And when confronted by that dreadful racket known as the Beatles, he grimaced and made remarks that kids expected to hear from their parents and grandparents: “My dear girl there are some things that just aren’t done, such as drinking Dom Perignon ’53 above a temperature of 38 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s as bad as listening to the Beatles without earmuffs!”
Compare that to, say, James Coburn’s Derek Flint. Same line of work as Bond, same style of movie as Bond, but Coburn’s spy was considerably hipper, funnier, and more in tune with the trippy sorts of things the kids were beginning to sample. He talked to dolphins. He practiced zen meditation and played Tibetan gongs. He was working for The Man, but The Man was constantly baffled by Flint’s bizarre alternative lifestyle. What Coburn started with Flint became even more explicit a year later in The President’s Analyst, in which the powers that be on all sides are so hopelessly corrupt and idiotic that Coburn’s harried doctor, pursued by spies from every espionage organization in the world, hides out among the hippies and discovers ho wmuch he loves their lifestyle. It culminates with him, an American spy (Godfrey Cambridge), and a Soviet spy (Severn Darden) all realizing how moronic the whole thing is and just walking away to enjoy an awesome Christmas dinner together.
Europe may have emerged as the free and easy kings of the cut-rate Bond film, but there’s a lot to be said for the product coming out of the rest of the world at the time, especially Asia. Like Europe, Asian film industries could achieve that globetrotting, jet-setting atmosphere with relative ease and inexpensiveness. Thailand, the Philippines, Hong Kong, India — they all had their own homegrown versions of Bond parading through an endless tangle of jazzy cabarets, exotic locales, and shadow-swathed dockyards (prime territory for fight scenes, after all). But if there was one non-Western country that could match the big guns not just in terms of art design insanity, but also in overall technical quality and high production value, it was Japan.
Japanese filmmakers embraced camp and the idea of film as pop art with zeal. For new filmmakers struggling to make a name for themselves, one of the easiest, breeziest ways to stand out from the crowd of more staid and steady Japanese directors was to make things splashy. Nikkatsu Studios, home of the “borderless action” film, was the perfect place to be splashy, open as the studio was to directors and writers indulging their artistic whims so long as they completed the checklist of requisite elements for whatever genre in which the film existed. Along with that came the easy cool of borderless action cinema: sunglasses, cigarettes, slim cut suits, and attitude to spare. Nikkatsu built its post-war success on youth films and was well-equipped to adapt to the shifting aesthetics of young patrons. It’s not surprising, then, that many of the Nikkatsu spy films during that period feel more like the counterculture celebrations of colorful Italian fumetti and Derek Flint than the James Bond films whose popularity was, nevertheless, responsible for producers wanting to make spy films in the first place.
Go-Go Girl Assassins
Among Nikkatsu’s grooviest, wildest forays into pop art espionage was Black Tight Killers (Ore ni Sawaru to Abunaize, 1966). It seems like it was constructed out of some mad fever dream by director Yasuharu Hasebe and production designer Teruyoshi Satani after they stayed up all night at a psychedelic go-go cabaret, drunk on Suntory whisky and overdosing on a steady stream of pop art and spy movies (and possibly mushrooms). When they awoke the next morning, two things had happened. One, their clothes had vanished; and two, they had made a movie about a photojournalist who gets tangled up with a gang of black leather clad go-go girl assassins who fling razor sharp 45 rpm records and are armed with ninja chewing gum, among other things.
OK, so maybe the genesis of Black Tight Killers wasn’t quite that grand, but whatever happened, the end result was a heady, mind-blowing concoction of saturated colors, bizarre camera angles, good-natured satire, crazy action, and swinging female assassins. Black Tight Killers fully embraces the iconoclastic spirit of the late 1960s, youth in revolt, counter-cultures, and rock and roll. Standing in the middle of the maelstrom of cool, sporting a boss pair of Chelsea boots, was Nikkatsu’s dependable leading man, Akira Kobayashi as Daisuke Hondo, a combat photojournalist recently returned from Vietnam. On his flight back to Japan, he flirts with beautiful young stewardess Yoriko (Chieko Matsubara, Tokyo Drifter, Cruel Gun Story) and even manages to score a date. Unfortunately for him, but fortunately for the movie’s plot, Yorkio’s deceased father happens to have hid a stash of gold from the last war. Just as Hondo is making progress with the girl, people start coming out of the woodwork to kidnap Yoriko and find the gold. One of these groups are pretty standard issue international crime syndicate types. The other group are the Black Tight Killers, a team of female assassins in fetish masks, high heels, and hot pants.
Hondo first encounters the women when they save him and his girl from an assault in an alley, though it turns out they only save him because they want to take him apart themselves. Each of the women has been trained in peculiar forms of ninjutsu incorporating common items in youth culture—records, bubblegum, et cetera—as weapons. Hondo finds himself on the wrong end of an ass-kicking at the hands of this gang of assassins several times before he and they discover that they need to become allies in order to accomplish their respective goals: Hondo to rescue Yoriko from the thugs who want to use her to find her father’s gold, and the black tight killers to recover the gold and return it to its rightful owners.
There’s just one problem: the black tight killers are better at getting killed than they are at killing. And so begins the movie’s primary running joke as, one after another, the go-go dancing femme fatales dies in combat, collapsing into Hondo’s arms as outrageously melodramatic music swells on the soundtrack.
Hasebe never lets it collapse under the weight of its own self-awareness. He understands that the best spoof of the campy spy film of the 1960s also has to be a very enjoyable spy film, and Black Tight Killers doesn’t forget to entertain. Kobayashi, as usual, throws himself into the role’s physical aspects with gusto, and he and the girls who make up the black tight squad get to have frequent fights with fists, feet, guns, bamboo bazookas, and of course more mundane weapons like killer albums and ninja chewing gum. he handles such camp deftly, probably because he apprenticed under Inoue Umetsugu, a director with an eye for the garish and grand.
Umetsugu loved nothing so much as he loved a lavish nightclub scene, and he would over-indulge those with reckless glee. His best known movies—with Hong Kong’s Shaw Brothers Studio, ironically, rather than Nikkatsu—such as Hong Kong Nocturne and Hong Kong Rhapsody are thinly-sketched stories that serve as an excuse to stage over-the-top nightclub floor shows and musical numbers. Hasebe is a different type of director than Umetsugu, but it’s also obvious that he picked up some aspects of the elder director’s sense of style. Few are the Hasebe movies that don’t feature at least one extended nightclub sequence. Black Tight Killers in particular is a veritable nonstop smorgasbord of colorful musical weirdness, even though it’s not a musical.
Cinematographer Kazue Nagatsuka is as game for the madness as his director. Like Hasebe, he came well-prepared, fresh off working on Seijun Suzuki’s Youth of the Beast (Yajū no seishun, 1963) The year after Black Tight Killers, he worked on Suzuki’s career-killing masterpiece, Branded to Kill (Koroshi no rakuin, 1967). After Suzuki’s dismissal from Nikkatsu, Nagatsuka stuck with him, working on Zigeunerweisen (1980) and Kagero-za (1981), two of the director’s off-kilter entries in an early 1980s trilogy. Obviously, Nagatsuka was no stranger to weirdness, and he really cuts loose in Black Tight Killers, imbuing the film with an insane mix of Bond-style suaveness, counter-culture avant gardism, and something that looks like film noir if noir had been able to drench itself in lurid colors. When Nagatsuka and Hasebe set themselves about creating a dream sequence, it’s ironic that the result is actually less surreal than the film’s waking world.But then—it’s pretty hard for anything to match the candy-colored fever dream of Black Tight Killers‘ waking world.