OSHI SAMURAI KIICHI HOGAN
Episode 3: KAON NO KAIDO (THE DANGEROUS HIGHWAY) ****
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!!!