Director: Buichi Saito
Writer: Gan Yamazaki
Cast: Akira Kobayashi, Ruriko Asaoka, Sanae Nakahara, Nobuo Kaneko, Jo Shishido, Misako Watanabe, Kyoji Aoyama, Mari Shiraki, Hiroshi Nihon’yanagi, Yuzo Kiura, San’emon Suzuki, Hyosuke Kanbe, Tsuneo Katagiri
Running Time: 78 min.
By Kyle Warner
The Rambling Guitarist is a film that has very clearly taken some notes on what was popular at the time in Hollywood. What begins as an Elvis-inspired drama about a musician on the road quickly spins into a gangster thriller. There’s also traces of a western in there somewhere. Thrown together, you get a lot of competing ideas for a 1 hour and 17 minute film, but somehow it keeps things together and manages to be a pretty entertaining (if overly familiar) bit of old-fashioned cinema.
Akira Kobayashi (Proxy War) plays a cool Elvis kind-of-guy named Taki. The ‘rambling guitarist’ of the title, he drifts into a small seaside town with nothing but a guitar to his name. After a silly barroom brawl affirms that Taki is also something of a badass, he pays his debt to the ruined bar owners by playing his guitar and entertaining customers. Though Taki claims he doesn’t want to stick around, he apparently quickly changes his mind when the local crime boss sees potential in him and hires him to do collections.
Here’s when the film shifts gears. At the start The Rambling Guitarist seems tailor-made for Akira Kobayashi, giving him a chance to play a mysterious musician who drifts into town, sorts out justice, and romances the pretty girl (Ruriko Asaoka). The dramatic shift in tone and direction happens gradually enough, but before long The Rambling Guitarist and its main character seem entirely different from what we saw in the opening moments. Crime boss Akitsu (Nobuo Kaneko) has great ambitions for his town. Akitsu wants to build an entertainment complex by the sea and the only thing standing in his way is a fishery that refuses to sell. Akitsu has no qualms that his own sister lives and operates out of the fishery and makes it his mission to destroy her business so that he may swoop in. By this time, Taki has become an enforcer for Akitsu, but he’s still basically a decent guy at heart. His relationship to Akitsu becomes strained the more he learns of his boss’ dirty dealings and things get even more complicated when Taki’s past comes back to haunt him.
It’s a simple film. It takes us exactly where we’d expect. The fun comes from the actors, basically all of whom turn in good work. Akira Kobayashi is more believable as the guitarist than as the sharpshooting gangster but overall I enjoyed his character. Ruriko Asaoka (Incident at Blood Pass) shows some range as the love-struck Yuki who grows up a lot by the end. Nobuo Kaneko plays a similar slime ball criminal to the one he played in Battles Without Honor and Humanity—it’s a role he excels at. And Jo Shishido (Massacre Gun) plays a man from Taki’s past that can’t quite place how he knew Taki before, but we can tell it has Taki worried. Shishido and Kobayashi have some good scenes together. The boyish Kobayshi contrasts well with the rough Shishido, who looks even rougher than usual here with an ugly scar cut across one of those puffy cheeks of his.
The film, like its central character, drifts in and then drifts off again right about the time we thought we were beginning to know them better (it appears that there would be sequels, though, including titles like The Rambler Rides Again and Rambler in the Sunset). The Rambling Guitarist is slight but it manages to tell a complete story with entertaining characters crammed into its 77 minutes. Though the film may not stick around long enough or have enough new ideas to leave much of an impression, I enjoyed the movie and would consider giving it another spin in the future.
A note on the release: The Rambling Guitarist is the third film of Arrow Video’s new Nikkatsu Diamond Guys Vol. 1 Blu-ray/DVD set. The three films (the others being Voice Without a Shadow and Red Pier) are all put onto a single Blu-ray disc (the three films are then split between the 2 DVDs also included on the set). Now, I cannot tell you for certain if there was any issue with compromised video due to the three films sharing one disc, but I’m going to guess not. Each film is around 90 minutes long and the special features are brief; I’ve seen big studio releases put more content onto one disc before. The films look pretty good. I thought Red Pier looked a little beat up at times but that’s more likely due to the source materials. Voice Without a Shadow looks fairly excellent and The Rambling Guitarist (the only color film in this set) looks good for its age, with colors that really pop.
For special features we get two brief visual essays from Jasper Sharp, who gives us some background info on the Diamond Guys, in particular Hideaki Nitani and Yujiro Ishihara. They’re short videos but Sharp knows the subject well and fans should enjoy getting the extra info on the stars. Also included with the set is a booklet with a set of essays from Stuart Galbraith IV, Tom Mes, and Mark Schilling. I really enjoyed this set. I thought that Red Pier was rather dull but the other two films were entertaining, especially Seijun Suzuki’s Voice Without a Shadow. Also included on the set are trailers for the films to be included in Nikkatsu Diamond Guys Vol. 2, and if the trailers are any indication, Vol. 2 looks to be going for a much lighter tone. In Vol. 2 we should expect to see Tokyo Mighty Guy, Murder Incorporated, and Danger Paws. I’m happy that they’re already planning a second volume. I enjoyed this one and welcome a chance to see these lesser-known films starring some of Japan’s greatest stars.
Kyle Warner’s Rating: 6.5/10