Members of a Japanese crime syndicate are being bumped off, one by one, by an anonymous killer nicknamed Joe of Spades. The panicked crooks contact Murder Unincorporated, an organization that sends out an array of oddball assassins to dispatch the elusive, unidentified Joe before he wipes out the gang. Among these crazy killers for hire are dapper, poetry-spouting Heine Maki (Hiroshi Hijikata) who hides a firearm in his book of poems, baseball obsessed O.N. Kane with his trick-shooting bat, disgraced fish-phobic sushi chef Knife Tatsu, a little kid (Minoru Shiraki) dressed in Thirties gangster garb who claims he is Al Capone's grandson, and Konmatsu (Kon Omura), a bespectacled klutz with a Jerry Lewis voice. While the inept assassins scour the town in search of Joe, Heine is distracted by Emi (Yoko Yamamoto), a femme fatale who uncannily resembles his terminally-ill sweetheart Miho (also Yoko Yamamoto). In the meantime Konmatsu adopts Jiro (Jô Shishido), a seemingly unassuming young man with suspiciously super-slick sharpshooter skills, as his protégé. Amidst all this rival crime boss Anzai hires his own bounty killers and sets a plan in motion to eliminate everyone else.
Nikkatsu maverick Seijun Suzuki became a cult figure among cinephiles on the strength of Tokyo Drifter (1966) and Branded to Kill (1967), films perceived by western critics as postmodern parodies of the crime thriller. Yet a similarly playful and subversive sensibility is apparent throughout Murder Unincorporated, a wild and wacky Nikkatsu crime comedy released one year before Suzuki's satirical duo earned him the enmity of the studio brass. "If you don't laugh when you see this movie, I'm going to execute you", would-be tough guy Konmatsu snarls directly to camera in a pre-credits sequence that signals the anything-goes tone. What unfolds is a fast-paced genre parody that skips from one zany, borderline surrealistic comedy set-piece to another. Some gags involve fast-motion chase sequences, many more centre around outrageous feats of gunplay while others evoke Japan's 'manzai' tradition of comedy that pairs a zany, hyperactive dimwit with an exasperated straight man. Konmatsu's Martin & Lewis like double act with Jiro neatly reverses the standard manzai comedy roles as the inept antihero never quite grasps the real identity of his far cooler, more capable sidekick even though the latter is played by Nikkatsu superstar Jô Shishido!
Briskly directed by Hiroyuki Nasu, who went on to make Nikkatsu's lone entry into the kaiju eiga (monster movie) genre: Gappa – The Triphibian Monster (1967), Murder Unincorporated employs lighting tricks and theatrical techniques more commonly found in Hollywood musicals. For all its self-conscious wackiness the film exemplifies super-stylish pop cinema: the Nikkatsu ethos in a nutshell. Aspects of the plot anticipate later, darker comedy thrillers such as Kihachi Okamoto's more mean-spirited Age of Assassins (1967) and Katsuhito Ishii's Tarantino-esque Shark Skin Man and Peach Hip Girl (1998). Although played for laughs and for a large chunk seemingly unconcerned about coherence, the story does eventually add up and the third act even swerves into dramatic territory before the final, rip-roaring shootout. Thanks to energetic performances from an amiable cast of comedians and veteran Nikkatsu performers, the wacky characters emerge as lovable losers, each with their own tragicomic back-story. Yet the central joke, perhaps liable to evade non-Japanese viewers unfamiliar with the studio's output, is the plot is no more convoluted nor ridiculous than the usual 'serious' Nikkatsu action film. Paired with Danger Pays (1962) and Tokyo Mighty Guy (1960) as part of Arrow Video's exemplary Nikkatsu Diamond Guys Vol. 2 boxed set, Murder Unincorporated seemingly aroused the ire of cult film fans more accustomed to the grim and gritty side of Japanese crime cinema. Yet like those films if entered into with the right spirit it is uproarious fun.