Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Mute Samurai Episode 5




Tomisaburo Wakayama (Kiichi Hogan), Kayo Matsuo (Kikuno)

Directed by Tomisaburo Wakayama

Having previously been informed Gonzales is no longer in Japan, Hogan rides to Shimoda to sail to Spain. On his way there, he's compelled to rescue a group of twelve women and children being held hostage atop a mountain by a motley crew of young, angry samurai who call themselves the Fujinto Group. Demanding a ransom of 5,000 ryo ($750,000US) within a days time, the mad swordsmen show no mercy in killing any, or all of their captives. Kiichi Hogan tries desperately to climb the steep precipice to save as many of the hostages as possible.

Star and producer of this series, Tomisaburo Wakayama steps behind the camera to direct himself in the best episode next to Misumi's entry. The actor totally knocks it out of the park, expertly conveying the grim essence of THE MUTE SAMURAI. Every emotional faculty is squeezed dry in the allotted 47 minutes. From the opening scene of a child being shot in the head (the first of many), to the final tear-filled moment, 'The Fateful Encounter' grabs you by the throat and doesn't let go. 

There's so much going on in this episode, it's a miracle Wakayama was able to wring the amount of exposition and emotion out of all the principals as he does. He does a remarkable job in what seems to be his first, and last turn as a director. If true, it's a shame as he shows himself to be just as masterful guiding actors as he is guiding his sword onscreen. 

Firstly, the subject matter will possibly put some viewers off. A number of children are gunned down at point blank range, or pushed off a mountain only to die on the rocks below. The disgusting architect of this savagery is the heartless, emotionless Morishita Ikuma. Leading what he calls the Fujinto Group, Ikuma and his band are essentially an angry mob of anarchists hellbent on toppling the government and eradicating what he sees as corruption. Apparently, executing women and children is his way of starting what amounts to a senseless revolution.

This sort of storyline mirrored much of the turmoil going on around the world at the time. The 1970s was a time of social unrest that had breached seemingly every corner of the globe. Bombings, kidnappings and murders were commonplace. This sort of modern day barbarism is reflective of the chaos that took place during the tumultuous Tokugawa era THE MUTE SAMURAI is set in.

The scriptwriters (there are two this time) go all out with the operatic nuances piling the dramatic moments so high and thick, it would be parody if the material weren't so vicious. Among these is the inevitable reunion between former lovers Hogan and Kukino. On top of that, it's quickly learned that the vile Morishita Ikuma is Kukino's brother! Kiichi's real name, Kennosuke, is also unveiled to us.

Wakayama's title dark hero has been portrayed as seemingly invincible. That all changes here. For the first time, Kiichi Hogan is put in some serious mortal danger. Overcome with sentiment for the endangered hostages, the bounty hunters haste gets him a bullet in the chest. As Hogan lies on the mountainside digging out the bullet, the magistrate's men are gunned down as they, too, try to climb what is ostensibly the Japanese equivalent of Hamburger Hill. 

Reportedly, Wakayama put himself in very real danger while shooting this episode. It's obvious he's performing some dangerous stunts here, particularly during the climbing shots on this treacherous mountain. It's also in this entry that we really get a feel for Hogan as a human being. He loves children. His voiceover at the beginning alerts us to this; and it becomes glaringly apparent later on as he desperately tries to save just one of the kids being executed. There are no feel-good moments in this episode at all. Even the meeting between Hogan and Kikuno is not a happy occasion.

Hogan's ambivalence towards his former fiancee is striking. We've seen flashbacks of her in every episode till now, so this reunion is unexpectedly bittersweet to say the least. He makes eye contact with Kikuno, but nothing else. He doesn't even free her from her bonds! Presumably, his determination to find Gonzales at all costs has taken precedence over anything else. But then, his name means 'demon', so most likely there's no room in his heart for the love of a woman.

Isao Tomita's music matches the barren mountain regions the bulk of the show takes place on. Bordering on progressive tones, the synth cues hint at a slight rock sound that would eventually dominate later Japanese shows and movies eventually morphing into pop-rock ballad beats by the 1980s. Tomita's music is amazing, and continues to fit this series like a glove.

This is a brilliant episode. It's unusually violent, and overwhelmingly depressing. It perfectly captures the look and feel of its original source -- THE GREAT SILENCE (1968) -- and famed director Hideo Gosha's original story has flawlessly transposed that films despair to a samurai setting. Spaniards re-enter the storyline with episode six, but Gonzales continues to prove elusive. The dismal, melancholic ambiance remains out in the open.

You can purchase volume 3 HERE. It contains episodes five and six.

To be continued in episode 6: A WHIRLWIND OF BLOOD!!!

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Mute Samurai Episode 4




Tomisaburo Wakayama (Kiichi Hogan), Ebara Shinjiro (Odagiri Jokichi/Muira Shinjiro), Mori Kikue (Lady Boss), Eiji Go (Senpachi)

Directed by Kimiyoshi Masuda

Kiichi Hogan wanders into a new town and takes down a wanted poster for Muira Shinjiro. While having a drink, a woman named Yuki informs the bounty hunter that Shinjiro killed her brother and she wants revenge. Allegedly hiding out in the town of Sakai -- a small island community accessible via a small bridge. Populated by ruffians and fugitives lorded over by an elderly woman, Hogan searches for his quarry; but for reasons associated with finding Gonzales as opposed to collecting a bounty. Upon discovering Shinjiro's identity, Hogan learns of a conspiracy tying the man to the death of Yuki's brother and the Shimazu Clan. 

Yasuda returns for his second directorial assignment of this series, and it has a bit more going on than his first go round. So far, 'A Bridge to the Dark World' is the most intricately plotted episode up to this point. There are a few different strands bandied about in the script, and the only one of great importance is the furthering of Wakayama's character. A bit more emotion shines through; and even a great deal more erupts in the next episode. However, it starts to become apparent that Hogan cares more about getting information on Gonzales than the actual bounties for those connected to him in some way.

Another strand covered here is one that has been consistent since episode one -- the permeation of criminality among the poor and the meek. There seems to always be at least one person who is forced, or falls into crime simply out of the need to survive. Drug smuggling is the constant, as is a sense of anti-western sentiment in this series. That applies here, as does an exploration of "mistaken identity". The thin line between the good guys and the bad guys remains a noticeable trend in THE MUTE SAMURAI.

The Honor Among Thieves mantra embraced by the Yakuza is prevalent here as well; and in one surprise moment, it supersedes familial ties when one of the thugs betrays his own. 

This entry has little action till the end, but it's quite a good finale capped off with a duel between Hogan and the real villain of the piece. Wakayama is very powerful here. At the beginning, he kills a man with a single kick; later slings one poor sap clear across a room; and puts his knife throwing skills to good use. The finale against a gang of samurai who lay siege to a shed where the main protagonists are trapped is a highlight.

Eiji Go (see above) has a supporting role as one of the island thugs. He keeps the brutality toned down, though; in comparison to his works for Toei. Eiji Go played some true scumbags, and had the look for it. He features in movies like ZERO WOMAN: RED HANDCUFFS (1974), and films with Sonny Chiba such as fan favorite THE EXECUTIONER (1974) and its sequel from the same year just to name a few.

The camera placement and some photographic shots elevate moments in the show, yet again. This fourth episode begins -- as the others before it did -- with Kiichi either hunting, or being hunted by enemies. The opening for this one once more has an apocalyptic feel. Presumably this was the intention of both Katsu and (by this time, producer) Wakayama to get that sort of atmosphere across considering the gloomy nature of their series.

THE MUTE SAMURAI really picks up some serious steam in the next episode that will shock some, and possibly be a deal breaker for a few viewers for its violence alone. This stark, downbeat series is just starting to find its footing, and it only gets better from here.

You can purchase volume 2 HERE. It contains episodes three and four.

To be continued in episode 5: THE FATEFUL ENCOUNTER!!!

The Mute Samurai Episode 3




Tomisaburo Wakayama (Kiichi Hogan), Hama Yuko (O-ran), Tsuyama Toshiko (Shino), Wada Koji (Inokichi), Kato Yoshi (Village Master)

Directed by Kenji Misumi

Hogan is trans-porting a wanted criminal when he's informed that Gonzales was seen at the Missho-Ji Temple within the past year. In a nearby village, a drought has kept the wells dry and the locals nearly broke and desperate for fresh water. A group of bloodthirsty killers have over-run the nearby Missho-Ji Temple -- the only place for miles that has a liquid surplus. There they control the sacred wells, and keep the water for themselves. A swordsman is begged, and paid to travel there to retrieve the use of the wells back to the villagers. Easily defeated, the heartless swordsman joins the gang instead. The thugs, led by the ferocious female O-ran, terrorize and murder the townsfolk, and kidnap the women. Hogan is then engendered to enter the fray and help the destitute farmers.

One of samurai cinemas greatest directors displays his notable flair, and penchant for solemnity in this overly savage episode. The Italian western influence is in abundance here with the absolute ugliest looking bunch of barbarians this side of a Leone-Corbucci movie. The villains are truly despicable, and the make-up given the actors playing them truly make them look the part.

The samurai they initially hire to help them is a scumbag right from the start. First, their money offer is too small; then he insults, and forces a man from his house while demanding his wife entertain him for the night! Of course, this situation leads to a bad end. To make matters worse, this ignoble, contemptible rapist takes the money and sides with the vile thugs holding all the water. By the time Hogan enters the picture, the peasant villagers want no part of outsiders. While Hogan intends to help anyways, his true purpose is to gain more information as to the whereabouts of that wily Spaniard, Gonzales.

Covered in a wig and sweat, Riki Harada has a small role as a captured criminal being transported by Hogan during the opening sequence. We don't learn much about him, but apparently he's a gang boss as Hogan is ambushed by a band of killers that are quickly put down by his blade. Among his credits include the Shaw Brothers production, HEROES OF THE EAST (1978).

The fight choreo mix things up a bit. Swords are drawn, but Wakayama also indulges in some hand-to-hand. At one point, he gouges a man's eyes out and is seen brandishing metal forearm plates similar to those Chiba wore in his bonebreaking classic, THE STREET FIGHTER (1974).

The actors and drama aside, the photography and editing are some of the best so far. The viewer can almost feel the sweltering heat emanating from the screen. The opening sequence captures a barren, burned landscape that Kiichi crosses undaunted to his destination. The probing camera lingers on the cracked earth and crumbling architecture of languishing structures left to rot in the pounding rays of the sun. THE MUTE SAMURAI is a series notable for its sense of hopelessness, and Misumi's episode is a sterling example of this.

Isao Tomita's music has been of high quality since episode one, and it continues here. It's an unusual score, but recalls those of the BABY CART series. At times mixing experimental with traditional Japanese soundscapes, a thick element of doom is embedded within Tomita's compositions.

With nearly the entire episode reveling in the decadent brutality of the villains (led by a woman, no less!), the shows numerous grotesqueries overpower the viewer, rescuing their sensibilities with a coda that inspires a bit of Judeo-Christian mysticism. By comparison, DUNE from 1984 has a virtually identical ending. Kiichi Hogan is the messiah this oppressed village has hoped for; and once the evil is eradicated, not only do the townsfolk get their water supply back, but rain inexplicably pours down, soaking the once dry earth. It's a great capper to a show not prone to happy endings, yet the last moments do not fully escape a flicker of pessimism.

This episode can't be recommended highly enough. It totally represents the atmosphere this series strives for while promoting an apocalyptic vista in an area where water is prized over everything else. In approximately 47 minutes, Kenji Misumi creates a cruel world dominated by heathens and miscreants; and one near mythical savior who brings life back to a hamlet of benevolent farmers.

Volume 2 containing episodes three and four can be purchased HERE.

To be continued in episode 4: A BRIDGE TO THE DARK WORLD!!!

Monday, November 25, 2013

The Mute Samurai Episode 2




Tomisaburo Wakayama (Kiichi Hogan), Shintaro Katsu (Manji), Taichi Kiwako (Osayo), Tomikawa Masahiro (Sankichi)

Directed Kimiyoshi Yasuda

Hogan befriends a little boy named Sankichi after his father is found murdered in the street. The bounty hunter finds an admissions pass to a wealthy foreigners mansion in Gotenyama on the dead man's body. Hogan investigates as to who, and why the man was murdered. Crossing paths with Manji again, Hogan learns the dead boy's father, Inokichi, was involved in underworld activities and also that Manji is somehow connected. The mysterious character informs Hogan that there are two foreign mansions in Shinagawa -- one owned by Espinoza and the other by Gonzales, the Spaniard Hogan has been tracking.

Episode two picks up with Hogan carting off a dead bounty. Having a drink in a local tavern, a set up is introduced that's familiar to anyone who has seen any of the Zatoichi movies. Hogan, with a distraught local woman in tow, is saddled with taking care of a little boy in between tracking his Spanish quarry. 

Unfortunately, Kimiyoshi Yasuda's direction never rises above standard small screen genre conventions. It's not bad, just nothing you haven't seen before, although there are some things here that make the episode worthwhile in the end. 

However, the episode is hampered by a few key scenes involving Anglo actors, and one glaring flub during the conclusion. Japanese productions never seemed all that interested in obtaining good foreign actors, or even those who could look convincing in action scenes. Toshio Taniguchi's swordplay scenes have little impact in this respect, but look superlative when it's Japanese vs. Japanese. What does work, and will be the major selling point for viewers, is the interaction between the two offscreen brothers, Wakayama and Katsu.

Takaiwa Hajime's script is merely a retread of any number of the aforementioned Zatoichi adventures, but with a far more serious slant. The tone is not quite as grim thanks in part to Hogan's little dog playing an important role in the narrative here. Aside from that, the script covers some ground regarding peasant villagers falling into criminal organizations and unable to get out. It also succeeds in progressing the storyline, albeit modestly. The one plot point that proves the most interesting of all doesn't even revolve around Wakayama's temporarily surrogate samurai.

Manji (Katsu) gets a bit more screen time here; and his character unravels as some sort of Japanese Zorro. And like Zorro, Manji leaves his mark wherever he goes. His name refers to the sign of the swastika -- a symbol from many ancient civilizations in Europe and Asia with favorable connotations. It's more widely recognized as emblematic of Germany's Nazi party where it represented anything but noble implications.

Wakayama further diversifies himself from his famous Ogami Itto character. He's often just as stone-cold in his countenance, but even without saying a word, he effectively conveys emotion -- especially towards children. If anything, this episode does push this nuance ahead, which will come in handy in some of the more outright shocking later episodes. And while he's a mute, we do get to hear Wakayama's voice from the perspective of his subconscious.

Taichi Kawako was a lovely actress, and a familiar face having starred in Kaneto Shindo's KURONEKO from 1968. She also starred in Katsu's ZATOICHI IN DESPERATION (1972) and Kenji Misumi's THE LAST SAMURAI (1974). She plays the neighbor to the dead Inokichi character. Her Nancy Drew antics put her in danger in trying to locate his murderer. To further complicate things, she's initially unaware her husband belongs to the Yakuza cell that had Inokichi killed for trying to leave the group.

Japanese cult film fans will recognize Willie Dorsey as Espinoza's servant, Bali. He featured in Nipponese genre product such as Jun Fukuda's undeservedly obscure action-gore epic ESPY (1974) and Toshio Masuda's unremittingly grim PROPHECIES OF NOSTRADAMUS (1974). The former was one his more memorable appearances wherein he has his tongue psychically ripped out while trying to have his way with a Japanese woman.

Despite the familiarity of the material, director Yasuda was, and is known for some spectacular examples of Japanese cinema including the likes of DAIMAJIN (1966), some of the SLEEPY EYES OF DEATH series, 100 MONSTERS (1968), and a handful of memorable Zatoichi productions. 

Aside from some minor moments and scripting details that do more for later episodes than this one, the second episode falls short of the Katsu directed series starter. That doesn't make it a bad episode, mind you, it's just a standard programmer from a top shelf director. However, the violence heats up in the next episode; and one from a much celebrated filmmaker.

You can buy volume 1 HERE. It contains both episodes 1 and 2.

To be continued in episode 3: THE DANGEROUS HIGHWAY!!!

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