Akira Kobayashi first attracted serious attention as the young brother in Rusty Knife, where audiences fell in love with his open smile. Within months, Nikkatsu began featuring him as the lead and he became one of the most popular stars of the studio’s borderless action films. Rambling Guitarist itself spawned eight sequels. It is also, in many ways, the quintessential borderless action film, a movie shaped on an American model while placed in a Japanese setting and really operating in never-never-land.
In this particular case, the model is the Western, though set entirely in modern dress.
Kobayashi wanders into a port town armed only with a guitar, a white tee shirt and black leather jacket, big hair, and a theme song. A bar fight breaks out and he instinctively sides with the guy who is losing, who turns out to be a yakuza. The local boss hires Kobayashi to help drive off the only people standing in the way of a new property development, but Kobayashi develops qualms when he learns that the property is owned by the boss’s sister. The boss’s daughter (Ruriko Asaoka) also falls in love with him. Into the picture wanders the hired gunslinger, in this case Jo Shishido in a trenchcoat as an ex-cop who likes and dislikes Kobayashi on sight. Along the way we find the night club number apparently required in all the borderless action movies.
Eventually we reach a showdown, as required in both the Western and the wanderer-meets-ronin films, here done as a quick-draw contest with pistols on board a ship. The movie is in color as befits a top of the bill feature (Suzuki, Ishii, and the other B feature directors still worked almost entirely in black and white). Like so many other of the available borderless action films, it is quick, entertaining, highly dependent on the star’s attractiveness, and at this distance in time utterly ludicrous.
Despite the American formula, there are some significant Japanese factors. The line between businessman, especially in construction, and yakuza is very fine. Most striking is that the boss wants to destroy his sister not because he particularly disapproves of her husband but because she married without discussing it with him and gaining his explicit permission, an issue that is intensely Ozu and far from what we would expect in a “modern” film for a young audience.
Perhaps the most significant, however, is Kobayashi as the tame rebel, the man who wears the fashions of modern youth rebellion but upholds the ancient honorable traditions against the corruption of the new Japan.
The Western model is even more blatant in the eight sequels, starting with Rambler Rides Again.* Now Kobayashi is in Hokaido and he rides into town on a horse with his guitar, a bandana around his neck, and a fringed leather jacket.** The setting is still modern, but once again we have an evil property developer who in this case is trying to steal a ranch from the innocent maiden (Ruriko Asaoke again) and also some land from the native Ainu. The Ainu conveniently are identified by headbands and bows and arrows, which may be culturally accurate but certainly screams American Western. Once again there will be a shootout, though this time Jo Shishido is an eccentric friend. We seem to have even more music, with a lonely ballad under the bridge for Kobayashi, the obligatory nightclub scene, and even some music performed by the Ainu. After the bad guys are beaten, Kobayashi will take his horse, his guitar, and his theme song and ride off, leaving behind the girl who has fallen in love with him. Like its predecessor, it is both silly and entertaining, like a typical Roy Rogers Western.
Kobayashi was one of the quartet Nikkatsu called its Diamond Line of stars, with Yujiro Ishihara, Keiichiro Akagi, and Koji Wada, and Nikkatsu wasted no time between pictures. In 1959 he made eleven movies, including the start of a second series about the Dynamite Guy, and in 1960 he added a third Nagaremono series about another drifter as part of the twelve movies he headlined that year. In most of these the female interest was Ruriko Asaoke, probably because that’s just the way the schedules worked out, though the tabloids tried to make them an item until Kobayashi surprised everyone by marrying Hibari Misora. When Ishihara broke his leg and Kagi was killed in a go-cart accident in 1961, Kobayashi carried on the Diamond Line films almost single-handedly for a year and he continued as a major star into the seventies.
* My DVD says it is #2, though IMDB says it is #5, but neither indicates a specific release date to verify the information.
** Publicity stills on IMDB and my DVD show him wearing a cowboy hat as well, but I can’t find a scene in this particular movie in which he does.